Civic Engagement 101

When public school began earlier this month, some parents were wary of the idea of President Barack Obama’s likeness appearing on Orwellian viewscreens in their children’s classrooms. While the presidential address might have captured the banality of Big Brother’s compulsory public health announcements, the speech itself contained little that was politically alarming.
Of greater concern, however, was that the Department of Education had developed a class assignment (to be used in tandem with the address, but later scrapped) asking students to compose a letter detailing how they would personally help the president solve the country’s problems. To right-wing noses, the lesson plan reeked of propaganda, but it smelled rosy enough to modern pedagogues professionally trained in the latest academic trend: the civic-engagement curriculum.

It is hard to define civic engagement from a pedagogical standpoint; most attempts trail off in ambiguity. The American Psychological Association, whose guidelines are used by education departments in colleges across the country, attempts to lock down the nebulous conglomeration of activities that falls under the term:
One useful definition of civic engagement is the following: individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy. Civic engagement encompasses a range of specific activities such as working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighborhood association, writing a letter to an elected official or voting. Indeed, an underlying principal of our approach is that an engaged citizen should have the ability, agency and opportunity to move comfortably among these various types of civic acts.
Most definitions read in equally ambiguous, open-ended terms. What is clear, however, is that many professors are enthusiastic about the idea of forcing students to “get involved” as political creatures. As Harvard Professor Harry Lewis wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Harvard’s recently voted curriculum expects all students to study American institutions to prepare them for “civic engagement.” It is too soon to know what courses will fulfill that requirement. But I cautiously hope that we are stepping back from our relentless relativism and indifference to civic responsibility.
The problem with “stepping back” from relativism and indifference, however, is that personal preference complicates academic objectivity. A number of headlines from the last academic year reveal how civic engagement can be anything but civil or impartial.
Take the case of Andrew Hallam, an instructor who allegedly required his students to identify their political ideology before compelling them to write papers against Sarah Palin. Or Jonathan Lopez, a Los Angeles City College student, who took his professor John Matteson to court when Matteson criticized his stance against gay marriage during a public-speaking class. After witnessing his student become “civically engaged” in his state’s Proposition 8 debate, the teacher referred to Lopez as a “fascist bastard.” And who can forget twelve-year-old Lia from Toronto, whose pro-life defense of the unborn during a speech contest caused consternation among her teachers, led a judge to quit in protest, and eventually made international news?
These may be rare occurrences, but civic engagement pedagogy invites them. In such a climate, it is no wonder that the Department of Education’s proposed letter-writing campaign appeared politically suspicious.
Operating as it does between the minefields of politics, morality, free speech, and political correctness, why are civic-engagement programs increasingly popular, or at least more vocal, at institutions of higher learning? First, because they are an easy sell — especially to liberal arts programs.
Consider how difficult it is for the average philosophy or literature class to justify its existence. The immortal student inquiry, “Why are we reading this?” echoes in the halls of most liberal-arts institutions, where the students are more interested in a degree (and future employment) than in the fruits of Wisdom. Professors, trained for decades now to value the social over the transcendent, struggle to respond; once intellectualism embraces materialism, there is little reason to pursue art.
As a result, professors would usually be cornered into stammering out the response that reading great literature exercises critical thinking skills, teaches students how to improve writing, or develops some other ability useful to non-liberal arts majors. Meanwhile, materialists advocating civic engagement can point to tangible, documentable results — like pictures of smiling students in a soup kitchen — proving that learning has taken place. After all, how else can an institution quantify something as ethereal as a student’s spiritual growth for an outcome assessments report (the other new trend in higher learning)?
By marrying our various arts and sciences with active improvement in the community, the modern argument goes, and by enabling students to see how they can “make the world a better place,” we can attach value to that which is perceived as otherwise valueless — not only to students, but to administrators, benefactors, and grant-giving institutions.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t volunteer to feed the hungry. As Catholics who can boast a tidy list of Corporal Works of Mercy, we have a religious obligation to be at the forefront of service initiatives. But the civic-engagement curriculum tends to blur the distinction between religious and secular duties. We are told to
take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father . . . . When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (Mt 6:1-4).
Meanwhile, the pedagogy of civic engagement shouts out our service from the rooftop and inevitably makes our motives appear questionable. This breeds a cynicism regarding the intentions of civic engagement and even the purpose of higher education.
There is another, more disturbing aspect of civic engagement: By its own slippery definition, this approach ought to have tangible effects outside of the institutions of higher learning. We have seen those ultimate effects firsthand in the election of our current president. Among the last year’s headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education, one proclaimed that “Young Voters Overwhelmingly Favored Obama, Swinging Some Battleground States.” Civic engagement turned into a Democratic pep rally:
On Election Day, [Chontay Combs, a freshman at Indiana University at Bloomington] distributed “I rocked the vote” stickers on the campus, but by 10:15 a.m., she had run out. “Everyone wanted to show that they had voted,” she said. That night, after the results were known, everyone wanted to celebrate, Ms. Combs said: “For hours on end, students were driving around campus honking horns and screaming, ‘Obama!’”
One could easily find cynical motivations here. Whether it is due to the hopeful (or rebellious) nature of youth, implicit or explicit indoctrination by professors, or other more complex social factors, college students have a tendency to lean left politically. Colleges and universities — and the politicians who visit them — know this; in the case of last year’s election, civic engagement’s call to arms succeeded in motivating an otherwise indifferent and sluggish population to usher in a particularly liberal president.
Of course, if civic engagement is part of some kind of vast left-wing political machination, it could also backfire. Just before Obamania hit campuses, The Chronicle of Higher Education had reported:
[T]he fact is that conservatives have been making inroads into academe for decades, at least among students. While liberals outnumber conservatives on many college faculties, students have been slowly shifting rightward, even as young voters continue to favor Democrats.
According to a 2006 study by the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 26 percent of students now describe themselves as conservative, compared with 24 percent who describe themselves as liberal. Four years ago, those percentages were 21 and 36, respectively.
With the current excitement over Tea Parties and a countercultural reaction emerging against the liberal status quo, colleges might find more students wanting to use their service options to work at pro-life maternity clinics, to write letters to their local representatives condemning health-care plans that jeopardize life, and to make films exposing corruption in socially “progressive” institutions. The question will be whether their statistically liberal professors will tolerate a new, socially conservative form of civic engagement.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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