Our Civics Education Can't Fight These Threats to DemocracyRoundup
tags: democracy, civics, teaching history
Eric Mlyn is a lecturer at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the founding director of DukeEngage and formerly served as assistant vice provost for civic engagement at Duke. He is the co-editor, with Amanda Moore McBride, of Connecting Civic Engagement and Social Innovation: Toward Higher Education’s Democratic Promise (Stylus, 2020).
With the health of American democracy hanging by an unraveling thread, our old approaches to civic education are woefully inadequate to combat this existential threat.
To meet this moment of peril, we must recognize that the American political divide is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, it’s between those who are pro-democracy and those increasingly pushing us toward authoritarianism.
I have been a participant and leader in higher education’s civic engagement movement for more than two decades. The focus of my work has been building experiential programs that place students in civic organizations at home and abroad and teaching civic engagement and social change in the classroom. I have seen the deep impact that these kinds of programs and classes have on the students who participate in them and on the communities that they serve.
But I now see some of my own efforts and those of my colleagues as inadequate, because we are as a group unwilling to honestly name the threat, and so I am disheartened as I watch American higher education cower in the face of threats to our democratic mission. Most higher education leaders have maintained a frustrating fidelity to evenhandedness and caution while campuses, particularly those that are publicly funded, encounter daily attacks from state legislatures, including attacks on tenure, on discussions of critical race theory and on our colleagues who would deploy their expertise to serve the public good. Ironically, we fear being seen as political, while institutional leadership is politicized. In the face of these threats, it is long past time to adopt new and bold actions, and to set aside our hand-wringing about being perceived as controversial.
Since at least the 1940s, with the publication of the 1947 Truman Commission report “Higher Education for American Democracy,” the civic engagement movement in higher education promoted its democratic mission primarily through student voluntarism in local and global communities, including by creating service learning programs and co-curricular opportunities for direct service. Work in this area has become mainstream. Leaders in higher education regularly renewed calls for civic and service learning through a series of reports and exhortations, even as American society, its institutions and the nature of political conflict underwent dramatic change. As recently as 2012, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” urged “educators and public leaders to advance an educational vision that would make civic learning and democratic engagement an expected part of undergraduate education.”
In light of these existential threats, our campuses must be different this fall than in years past. Given that a number of Republicans and former Trump allies have condemned the ex-president’s incitement and support for the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, advocacy for democracy is not partisan—it’s a fundamental commitment to our Constitution shared across the partisan divide. With this framing, university leaders are not being inappropriately political when they speak out against the threats posed by the wing of the Republican Party that opposes our constitutional commitments. They are instead defending one of the fundamental missions of American higher education and working to assure that the freedoms needed for higher education to thrive will survive.
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