Embracing the “New Civics”


Democracy_BlackboardTwo great failings of the American professoriate are timidity and self-righteousness.

Casting about to orient myself in my new calling a decade or so ago, I found David Horowitz defining one extreme view of it and Michael Bérubé standing out on the other. Horowitz was pushing professors further into timidity and inaction (something that also increased their self-righteousness) while Bérubé was fighting back, promoting a necessary public involvement on the part of the faculty. Horowitz had been winning, but Bérubé was at the center of an invigorated resistance, one based on courage and flavored with humility.

At that time, I saw the conflict as essentially intermural, though Horowitz, I imagined, was more the townie trying to play on the college courts, the bitter wannabe who had never been able to make it to the inside. Bérubé, on the other hand, was the real thing, the professor publicly integrating his professional and private lives into a commitment to the broader population, making him (as he continues to be) the archetypal ‘public intellectual’ for our time. Their struggle, I soon discovered, had a long pedigree: Just as there are elements of Walter Lippmann in Horowitz, Bérubé is most certainly a spiritual descendant of Lippmann’s antagonist, John Dewey.

With the election of Barack Obama, I thought the tide had turned and the Bérubés had won. With the subsequent ascendancy of Donald Trump, I see that I was wrong. Horowitz is triumphant—at least, for now. In the broader culture, the struggle is one between people (mainly white) descended from a Calvinist tradition and others whose worldview is defined by the Enlightenment or by traditions outside of Europe. Our narrower concerns over education are simply a subset, I have learned, of that fight.

The greater battle goes back beyond the founding of the nation, much of it originating in the divergent worldviews of the Calvinist Scots-Irish immigrants of the 1700s and the earlier whites, whose leaders were steeped in the blossoming thought of the Enlightenment. Unwelcome in the established colonies, the Scots-Irish headed to the western frontier of the time, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, from whence they would become the advanced guard for the westward expansion of the United States.

Back to education, I see now that I may have been thinking a bit too narrowly, reflecting the ‘town/gown’ distinction so many Americans accept without question. I have since learned, watching the devolution of debate in the American public sphere, that ‘public intellectual’ itself should be something of a redundancy, the concept of its being ‘public’ embedded in ‘intellectual.’ That is, I no longer want to emphasize any distinction between the public sphere and the intellectual sphere. Having done so, we academics have actually hurt  our country.

A scholar, for my current purposes, is something different from an intellectual. The scholar focuses on subject matter and can exclude all else. An intellectual examines subject matter in the light of the broad concerns of the time. Horowitz wants academics to be scholars alone (essentially so that he can shut them out of the debates in the public sphere). Bérubé wants to encourage scholars to broaden their brief, to see that the ‘butterfly effect’ (the interconnectivity of everything) cannot be avoided and to act accordingly.

It is since the 1960s that professors have retreated into timidity, covering their failure with self-righteousness. They stay away from issues of impact and stand firm on those where they can take a moral stance without risk. The cliché, one furthered by Horowitz, is the tenured Marxist who risks nothing but shouts loud about things far afield from current public issues. It’s not quite so simple but, as with all clichés, there’s a kernel of truth to it: The professoriate trends liberal but, today, tends to be relatively inactive, cowed by the attacks of Horowitz and those like him.

We let things happen to us. Smug in our ivory chambers, we even pretended that we were changing the world while actually changing nothing.

We let our attackers set the agenda. Today, when we respond in the outside world, we are either tepid or appear to rant. Little that we do (witness Wisconsin) seems to have any impact.

A recent attack, as egregious as any (though of minor impact), has come from the National Association of Scholars (NAS) through a ‘report’ titled Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. [Two posts on it have already appeared here, one by John K. Wilson, the other by J. Michael Rifenburg.] It makes up a movement it calls “New Civics” which, it claims, “redefines civics as progressive political activism.” It concludes that this “takeover can and must be stopped—but only by the sustained attention of the American people to prevent it from happening. It will take, indeed, democratic civil engagement, by individuals, the institutions of civil society, and the government at all levels, to prevent the New Civics advocates’ exploitation of our universities.”


The real goal, of course, is to wrest even more control of higher education from the faculty, giving it to (primarily) state governments, which are, today, dominated by rightwing ideologies. It cannot be otherwise, for there is no such thing as “New Civics.” This is a made-up crisis. Such crises to not appear accidentally but to further an agenda. The only possible one, in this case, is further limitation of two of the pillars of the AAUP, academic freedom and shared governance.

In response, I submit that we should not bow our heads and scuttle back to the shelter of the like-minded (as we have done so often) but should seize this “New Civics” concept and run with it—in the other direction. We should take it to the wider public, arguing that, in the light of a population of growing ignorance concerning the basic functions of our American system, we need to make a “New Civics” part of all of our educational endeavors. We should start by enumerating just what the responsibilities of a citizen are, starting with knowledge of the system they are participating in. We should start acting on our civic responsibilities, as Bérubé does, not simply complaining about what we are losing.

We should start by educating ourselves and our current students to the responsibilities of a form of government based on the popular will, using the current chaos in government as an example, examining the reasons people vote for particular candidates and exploring the dangers, for example, of such things as ‘creative disruption’ in a large but fragile system. We should teach the fundamentals of research in such a way that students begin to see for themselves how the American population continues to be fooled by organizations like the NAS and others much more pernicious—like Horowitz and Steve Bannon.

We should show pride in the quest for knowledge as an element of American culture and not simply the purview of the scholar and pride in the judgment we develop, judgment allowing us to distinguish between real and useful knowledge and what we may simply want to believe. Pride in our activities within the broader community.

If NAS wants to battle the “New Civics,” let’s give them something to battle. Let’s stop being timid and stop justifying ourselves through futile fist-shaking.

If we do, we will win, and will win for the country. If we don’t, if we simply stand aside or justify ourselves as simply doing what scholars do, we will lose, and lose for the country.

Let’s move; let’s take our battles outside of our sanctuaries.