David Randall, Ph.D. | April 1, 2017

The New Civics: Using ‘service learning’ to teach progressive advocacy

David Randall, Ph.D.

In Oklahoma and across the country, a new effort is diverting university resources and student time to progressive causes, propagandizing students into progressive beliefs, and creating a cadre of radical activists.

There’s a nationwide “New Civics” movement that uses the language of civics to teach progressive politics to students. The National Association of Scholars has published a report on this called “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”

The New Civics uses service learning—spending time in “community service” to outside groups—as its basic pedagogy.

The movement starts with relatively innocuous goals, such as organizing students to pick up litter. This gets students used to being organized, and trains them to organize others. The more advanced New Civics groups use terms such as “service learning,” “civic engagement,” and “global civics” to describe what they do. These terms may sound neutral, but in practice they amount to efforts to recruit students into one-sided political activism. The INVST Community Leadership Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for example, “offers transformative service learning for social and environmental justice.”

“Social justice” is generally a euphemism for a radical left agenda—in today’s vocabulary, for progressive politics. In their own words, advocates of service learning define social justice “in the classroom” as working for the “explicit recognition of oppression in its multiple forms,” where the “fabric of oppression” adheres to white people, males, Christians, heterosexuals, wealthy and middle class people, temporarily able people, and people from Western European cultures. The New Civics as a movement wholeheartedly embraces social justice in this sense. Essentially, New Civics is an effort to divert university resources and student time to subsidize progressive organizations, propagandize students into progressive beliefs, and create a cadre of radical activists.

Oklahoma isn’t as badly affected as most states. Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City’s service-learning program includes a fairly unpoliticized list of community partners, such as the American Red Cross, Community Literacy Center, Feed the Children, and “The Hugs Project.” The University of Central Oklahoma also includes an unpoliticized list of community partners, and so does Oklahoma State University, where service-learning partners include the Stillwater Public Library, Stillwater Area United Way Agencies, and Tiny Paws Kitten Rescue.

But Oklahoma isn’t immune to the radicalization of the national New Civics movement.

At the University of Oklahoma, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program’s Center for Social Justice uses two key aspects of the New Civics: service learning and engaged research. The Center’s mission statement illustrates the conflation of civics and progressive activism: “Creating a platform for gender and social justice advocacy and awareness, the Center provides opportunities for students to become engaged citizens.” The Center for Social Justice has already introduced to Oklahoma the conflation between being an “engaged citizen” and “social justice advocacy.”

At Oklahoma City University, the Vivian Wemberly Center for Ethics and Servant Leadership runs the basically unpoliticized service-learning program—but the Wemberly Center also runs the World House Scholars Program, in which “All World House scholars participate in service learning projects each year, [and] complete courses addressing issues of peace, justice, and ecological sustainability.” The “scholars curriculum” includes service-learning courses such as “SOC 2013: Introduction to Sociology: Poverty & Social Justice,” which focuses on “investigation and critical examination of basic sociological concepts and perspectives with special attention on poverty and social justice issues and strategies for positive social change.” Part of Oklahoma City University’s service learning is already devoted to progressive advocacy.

At the University of Oklahoma’s School of Social Work, a graduate student named Kate Quinton blogs on the department website that “Oftentimes I think we separate civic engagement and the roles of social work. But we can’t. … If we plan to stand for social justice, we must use our voices to advocate for our clients.” Kate Quinton presumably learned the inseparability of civic engagement and social justice from her professors; soon she will apply it to her career.

The professors who teach about the New Civics in Oklahoma are also true believers of the associated radical theories. Tami Moore, a professor in Oklahoma State University’s School of Education, specializes in research on “civic/democratic engagement.” In a book on service learning, Moore writes about the possibility of applying postcolonial theory to civic engagement—“postcolonial theorists for the most part understand power as an oppressive force. … Thus the community is not merely the passive object of the university’s power. This is also an important factor to recognize and account for in researching university/community partnerships.” Postcolonial theory doesn’t much apply to the Tiny Paws Kitten Rescue—but service learning in Oklahoma in the hands of the New Civics advocates is ultimately about understanding power as an oppressive force, not about rescuing kittens.

And service learning is becoming mandatory. Oklahoma City University requires that its undergraduates engage in service learning; so too does East Central University. The University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) is working to integrate service learning throughout the whole curriculum.

And what does UCO hope to accomplish with the New Civics? It wants to turn students into “global citizens”: “These activities challenge students to integrate their identities as members of their home communities and as global citizens who interact productively with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds.” The phrase “global citizen” means, if anything, an American disaffected from his first loyalty to America. There is, however, nothing of educational value here. Elsewhere, the University of Central Oklahoma phrases a “learning outcome” for service learning in rather sinister language: “Demonstrates evidence of adjustment in own attitudes and beliefs because of working within and learning from diversity of communities and cultures. Promotes others' engagement with diversity.” UCO, in short, wants to manipulate students’ personal beliefs and train them to do the same to others.

In the University of Central Oklahoma’s defense, it draws this language from the Association of American Colleges & Universities model “VALUE Rubrics,” a set of guidelines that colleges are supposed to follow. These rubrics have succeeded in transmitting New Civics and progressive politics, bound up together, to colleges throughout the country. But that is precisely the point: once any college in the country starts to promote the New Civics, it gets caught up in the radical progressive national movement. The University of Central Oklahoma’s own attitudes and beliefs are being adjusted.

It is wonderful when anyone chooses to volunteer. OSU-Oklahoma City’s list of community partners includes Alleve Hospice and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, and there aren’t better ways to give your time than to help them out. But as wonderful as volunteering is, it isn’t education. Service learning, civic engagement—these are dodges to disguise progressive political advocacy. We should support volunteering and real education in the classroom, but we should get rid of the New Civics subterfuge that smuggles progressive advocacy into our colleges and universities. The New Civics ruins real education and real volunteering—at the expense of students, parents, and taxpayers.

David Randall, Ph.D.

David Randall is the research director of the National Association of Scholars. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University, an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, a master’s degree in library science from the Palmer School at Long Island University, and a B.A. from Swarthmore College. Prior to working at NAS he was the sole librarian at the John McEnroe Library at New York Studio School.

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