Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"Civic Engagement"

Even more than business with its endless array of management gurus, academia is prone to embrace fads. Sometimes – students taking over university buildings and brandishing rifles – they fade away mercilessly quickly. Sometimes, they linger with important consequences. A current disturbing fad is the rise of something called “civic engagement” as a key part of the curriculum. If it hasn’t already, it is coming to a campus near you.

"Civic engagement" sounds so virtuous; what kind of crabby skeptic could be against it? The Association of American Colleges & Universities has a Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement. So what is the center’s mission? Its own brief description (pdf) lays out one of its recent initiatives:

For the period 2003-2005, the Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement will focus its grants and activities around a common theme: Journey Towards Democracy: Power, Voice, and the Public Good. Although two-thirds of college seniors do community service or volunteer during college, service does not automatically translate into an understanding of systemic sources of inequities. New research demonstrates that service alone does not provide clear pathways to informed action. To counter that finding, the Center seeks to underscore that knowledge and action can make a difference in the world. A robust democracy and the public welfare depend on an engaged and informed citizenry.

Uh oh. Those of us who have been in academia for long enough know where trails opened by certain phrases will lead. We are entirely confident that inquiries into “power,” for example, will not focus on the desire and ability of university professors to mold (and their success in molding) the political views of their students. Investigation of the possibility that the government has too much power, that entrepreneurship is one of the most liberating forces in society, or that encouraging ethnic and religious obsession is one of the most destructive forces in society will never see the light of day in courses where “civic engagement” is prized. Instead, the usual suspects – large corporations, religious ideologues, those who oppose government remedies for ancient tribal grievances because they fail to recognize their own privileges, etc., etc., - will be trotted out as the source of “power” that generates “inequities” that require “knowledge and action.” Civic engagement, in other words, is a camouflage for encouraging political pressure exclusively along the paths that the most politically engaged portion of the modern university faculty, with its roots in the New Left, chooses.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about the whole “civic engagement” exercise as best I understand it is the hand-waving way in which it transforms“civic engagement” into "lobbying the government." Coaching a Little League team is "civic engagement." Working at a crisis pregnancy center is "civic engagement." Helping channel investment capital to would-be entrepreneurs with no access to it is "civic engagement." But this is not generally what is meant, because these activities require no steps from the state.

Instead, the "civic engagement" initiative blithely assumes that government is a problem-solver, that it must only turn its attention to the problems identified by the left, and that the only reason it hasn't solved these problems yet by increasing taxes yet again to pay for underfunded schools or working for measures to make sure that every tribal group is represented in every occupation in exactly its proportion in the population or whatever the cause du jour is is because citizens aren't paying attention. Underengaged consumerists that they are, they don’t know how to pressure the government to spend taxpayer funds on this or that elaborately engineered, centrally planned remedy. "Civic engagement" as "lobbying for the causes favored by university professors" is ultimately another step down the zero-sum road that pits one social faction against another in warfare over laws and government money. It further cements the idea that social problems are to be passively foisted off on the government rather than solved by citizens on their own initiative. In that sense it is an avenue to further dependency, further strife vented through politics and, given the inability of government to solve problems at any distance from its core competencies (to use a management-guru term), further aggravation of the problems that all that civic engagement was supposed to solve.


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