Initially I intended this week’s topic to be about things we don’t talk about like salaries and preparing for the next step in our professional lives, but I also want to be responsive to current events. That topic will keep for another time.
After the election I wrote about reconciling my Republicanism and my work in community and civic engagement. It’s rare that I’m the most liberal person in any room I’m in. But earlier this week, that was the case when I attended a launch event for a report describing how institutions of higher education approach civics. Normally I would cite this report like the good academic I am, but I am leery to to draw any more attention to it. Instead I wanted to use this space to process some of what is in there.
The report argues that most students graduating high school and college lack a basic understanding of government, our founding documents, and the like. I don’t disagree with this, but that is where my agreement with the report ends. The authors argue that civic engagement, service-learning, deliberative democracy, and the other related subfields exist to advance a progressive agenda. It also suggests that civic engagement programming never refers to accountable service in government, that volunteerism equates to free labor for progressive organizations, and that the goal of these activities aims to destroy not only the role of the faculty but the disciplines they teach. Institutions, they claim, should only teach the history of the nation, your role as a citizen, and how laws are passed. How these teachings and the learnings that stem from civic engagement, service learning, and other experiential education activities are mutually exclusive is something I’ll never understand.
I have internalized these “findings” and have spent a great deal of energy reflecting on my short six plus years in the profession, including every conversation I’ve ever had with a student. I’m taking this personally. The report is like a professional yearbook of people and organizations I respect and learn from every day. Many of them have spent their career trying to foster civic learning and purpose amongst our young people.
While I wouldn’t intend to speak for everyone involved in this work, I feel confident in saying that most, if not all, want students to be able to think critically about complex issues, understand the root causes of the issue, and think about the consequences. We also want our students to do something to address the challenges they come across. The strategies employed to address issues may sometimes stem from a liberal movement, but strategies are just ways of doing things and they are independent from any political agenda. That is why most of us are here and why we do this work.
I am frustrated that the activities and values I’ve built my career on have been attacked in this way. It’s time to double down. It’s time to have even more conversations with students, with those who may not share our viewpoints, to work together across divides. Our work is not easy and it’s unlikely we’ll become wealthy doing it. We’re here because educating the next generation is one of the most important things we can do as a society. And frankly I don’t care what political viewpoint my students have. I care that they have an informed opinion, that they can back those opinions up with data, and that they do something when they come across something they disagree with.
In the coming weeks I anticipate much more will be written about this; there will be official statements and conference sessions on it. I look forward to joining these conversations and continuing to use this as a time to be reflective about my work and our field.