Revolution 101

How the 'New Civics' Is Fomenting Civil Unrest

Imagine you have a daughter who's a bright, big-hearted high-school senior. Your straight-A idealist has been diligent about submitting her college applications, and she can't wait to immerse herself in service-learning and civic engagement in pursuit of a degree in Nonprofit Management. You peruse the school's website and see that service-learning is a new, community-engagement pedagogy, integrating "meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities." Projects are often collaborations between faculty and community partners, such as public agencies or non-governmental organizations. Applying course content to community-based activities, service-learning projects give students experiential opportunities in "real world contexts."

That all sounds good, you think. Sure, reality will probably chip away some of your daughter's youthful idealism, but hey, in an era of protests and campus anarchy, what's not to like about community service and civic responsibility?

Unfortunately, there may be a lot not to like about it. And once her coursework gets underway, you'll probably need some help making sense of what is going on with it.

Classical Civics: What It Was

First, some background. Civics education traces back to the Greeks, with the ideal of the civitas, the city. Notre Dame Constitutional Studies professor Patrick Deneen says that a civitas was "a particular place with a particular history and particular polity." Civics education, then, was "education in citizenship."

It has traditionally had three components: (1) education in the history of the place and its people, including the civilization from which it arose; (2) education in the political structures—the role of the citizen, the rules (laws) citizens live by, and how they're collectively agreed to; and (3) education in virtue, in the understanding that virtue is required of citizens, since governance of oneself and one's passions is a necessary prerequisite for participation in collective self-governance. The goal was to teach people how to be free citizens rather than subjects, and how citizens could preserve political self-governance without usurping the rightful liberties of others.

During America's first century, civics wasn't an academic subject per se, but rather was blended in with and covered throughout education in general. Many reading assignments, for example, consisted of historical documents and letters related to America's background, founding, and structure.

The "New Civics"

Unfortunately, the "New Civics," of which service-learning and civic engagement are capstone concepts, is a whole different animal. To break it all down, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a network of scholars committed to academic freedom and excellence in higher education, has produced a comprehensive report on it. Published in early 2017, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics is available in book form and can be downloaded for free at It spells out exactly what the New Civics is, traces where it came from, demonstrates to what extent is has already taken hold, and draws out the goals toward which it is moving. The whole package, including appendices and four case studies, clocks in at nearly 500 pages, but the report itself (less than 200 pages) is clear, digestible, and concise without forgoing specifics.

• What it is:The New Civics presents itself as a pedagogy of volunteerism and good works, many of which are noble, altruistic endeavors in themselves. But with political activism at the center of everything students are encouraged (if not expected) to do, the New Civics shamelessly remakes civics in the image of progressive, leftist politics. Students basically get trained to think of good citizenship as progressive activism. This takes place in the classroom, in student life and extra-curricular activities, and then beyond campus in a plethora of off-site projects where service-learning effectively becomes vocational training in progressive activism. And for much of this "volunteering," the student receives college credit.

• Where it came from: Beginning in the late 1800s, all of education, including civics, evolved under the influence of John Dewey, to whom education was not a means of imparting truth to the next generation but rather was an instrument to be used for social change. After decades of this preparatory softening, the New Civics sprouted in the hotbed of 1960s' rebellion. Then, in 1985, after many of the 1960s' rabble-rousers had settled into cushy positions in universities, Campus Compact was founded to foster student volunteerism and community service. However well-intended it may have been, Campus Compact quickly became a channel for funneling money into activism under the benign labels of service-learning and civic engagement.

In 2012, the New Civics took a quantum leap forward with the publication of A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future, a 136-page "National Call to Action" from the Association of American Colleges & Universities. Making Citizens refers to and discusses A Crucible Moment at length, but here it suffices to say that this call to action's goals for "college learning" and "democracy's future" are virtually indistinguishable from the left's political agenda.

• Its reach: According to the NAS report, the New Civics has metastasized, not just throughout academia but also into a whole network of community organizations and nonprofits that, with help from the U.S. Department of Education, fund, regulate, and administer New Civics programs. The reportdocuments a veritable orchard of bad fruit, but there's no need to list any here. You already know many things are amiss in academia, and anyone can see the irrational protests and campus chaos. What we are seeing is the New Civics coming to fruition.

• Where it's headed: A Crucible Moment outlines immediate plans to make New Civics classes mandatory throughout the country, to make every class "civic," and to require every teacher to be "civically engaged," which includes factoring "civic-mindedness" into tenure decisions. "In short," reports the NAS, "they want to take over the entire university. After that, the New Civics advocates want to take over the private sector and the government as well."

Revolution by a Thousand Protests

Don't laugh that off. They've already taken over a lot of the university, and that's not all. New Civics is cropping up in high schools too, and its advocates are laying the groundwork to go global. Note that New Civics is not an addition to the Old but rather a replacement for it, using existing funding, channels of dissemination, and terminology. You could call it a wholesale imposture. Hijacked labels include "community service," "community studies," "student engagement," "student leadership," "social responsibility," "global learning," "global civics," among others, including the shameless "get out the vote" initiatives and, of course, the all-encompassing phrase "social justice." After a while, the terms start to run together like so much bureaucratese out of Atlas Shrugged or 1984.

It would be one thing if the ideas underlying the New Civics and these service-learning projects were openly articulated, debated, and evaluated in the classroom, but generally they are not. Rather, the divide-and-conquer grievances of white privilege, sexism, income inequality, lack of access to quality health care, and the like, along with looming natural catastrophes produced by climate change and environmental degradation, just are the urgencies of the day. And the boilerplate, ill-defined anodynes we hear ad nauseum—equality, inclusion, diversity, sustainability, and the like—these just are the self-evident remedies. And if you don't see it that way, well, your consciousness just hasn't been raised to their level. You are the problem.

New Civics "civic engagement" basically reduces to a protest for every occasion. "The point of the New Civics," writes David Randall, chief author of the NAS report, is "to create a cadre of permanent protestors, and justify their agitation as 'civic.'"

But this "street politics" has more in common with a banana republic than with classical civics. Academia has been grossly politicized for decades, but it's bordering on political incest when public funds are channeled through public universities into direct funding of political agitation for college credit. It's not insignificant that A Crucible Moment was paid for, "at least in part," according to the document itself, with federal funds. It's as if the drivers of the New Civics no longer know the difference between education, civics, and progressive politics.


The NAS's recommendations are severe. The New Civics must be "removed root and branch from higher education." Because it is ideologically bound, whole cloth, to radical-left politics, it "cannot be reformed; it can only be dismantled." The report gives specific steps to take toward that end, but it also forewarns that enormous reservoirs of bureaucratic power sit ready to defend it. This will be a long and difficult extrication.

Meanwhile, everyday citizens who don't want to see the next generation reduced to subjects should bone up on and support traditional civics. The website of Hillsdale College in Michigan is a great go-to place for online courses. In addition, people should watch their local universities closely, and call them to account whenever they see political acts being incited under the guise of education. Parents and alumni should pay attention to their children's schools and their alma maters and stop all donations to institutions where politics are confused with academics. Tell the universities why you're doing this, and educate anyone and everyone on this matter where you can.

Revolutions, Rational & Irrational

It is unfortunate that the American and French Revolutions are commonly viewed as analogous, because the two movements were based on and carried out according to completely different philosophical foundations. The founders of America drew from Enlightenment ideals without rejecting the basic tenets of the biblical worldview: there is a God; people are fallen; and attempts should be made to resolve disputes with reasoned arguments before resorting to violence. They wrote deeply philosophical treatises delineating their particular grievances against the mother country in the hope of reaching a peaceful and mutually satisfying resolution. When war broke out, it was because King George III rebuffed their appeals and became the aggressor.

The French Revolution was a whole different animal. It, too, drew from Enlightenment ideals but summarily dispensed with God as the foundation of reason itself. No treatises or carefully argued bills of particulars were presented on July 14, 1789, when a mob of angry Parisians stormed the Bastille, the event which set off a decade of violence, bloodshed, and social dissolution ending in the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bizarrely, all of it took place under the banner of "Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!"—"Liberty! Equality! Brotherhood!"Notably, the French themselves downplay this unsavory aspect of their own history by commemorating July 14 as French National Day, rather than Bastille Day, as it's referred to outside of France.

Semantics aside, inciting the passions of young idealists for political purposes is nothing new. The Nazis exploited their young people with the Hitler Youth, and Mao Tse-tung with his Red Guard. The difference between these movements and the New Civics is only one of degree, not of kind. Political protest for college credit is a civics revolution America can do without.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #43, Winter 2017 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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