US cour­ses tackle civic ‘il­lit­er­acy’

Trump era lends ur­gency to de­bate about so­cial jus­tice and demo­cratic val­ues. Jon Mar­cus writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS -

Among the cour­ses re­quired of all stu­dents at Ken­tucky’s Berea Col­lege is an in­tro­duc­tion to uni­ver­sitylevel read­ing, writ­ing and think­ing that cov­ers free thought, scep­ti­cal in­quiry and “gov­ern­men­tal, re­li­gious, and in­di­vid­ual op­pres­sion”.

Mean­while, a writ­ing class at New Eng­land Col­lege, New Hamp­shire, fo­cuses on how es­say­ists have chron­i­cled civic is­sues, so­cial jus­tice and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.

And a psy­chol­ogy course at Penn­syl­va­nia’s Al­legheny Col­lege teaches how peo­ple func­tion to­gether in com­mu­ni­ties and can “cre­ate change for the com­mon good”.

Th­ese are ex­am­ples of how some US uni­ver­si­ties – re­act­ing to alarm about wide­spread ig­no­rance about demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, his­tory and prac­tice – are seed­ing civics lessons into what their stu­dents learn.

“There’s just a lot of ev­i­dence that we in the United States are not par­tic­u­larly good at ad­dress­ing the real chal­lenges we face,” said Andrew Selig­sohn, pres­i­dent of Cam­pus Com­pact, which pro­motes civic ed­u­ca­tion. “There’s been a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing.”

The ad­vent of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has ratch­eted up con­cern about this. But the same par­ti­san bick­er­ing that has di­vided the coun­try has also found its way into the de­bate about how gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics should be taught. And as uni­ver­si­ties try to pick their way through that mine­field, some crit­ics say, many are do­ing less teach­ing than talk­ing.

“There has been a sea change, but it mostly re­flects the noise that’s been made around this,” said Nancy Thomas, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Higher Ed­u­ca­tion at Tufts Univer­sity. Univer­sity lead­ers “are not re­ally sure what to do”. Even the term “civics” is a way “to keep it broad and non-threat­en­ing”, Dr Thomas said.

The prob­lem for uni­ver­si­ties be­gins with the fact that fewer than one in four high school grad­u­ates scores at a level of pro­fi­cient or higher in civics, ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­pal national stan­dard­ised ex­am­i­na­tion in that sub­ject. Not only do they ar­rive at univer­sity with­out hav­ing learned it, 28,000 stu­dents al­ready en­rolled at 50 uni­ver­si­ties, who were tested in civic lit­er­acy, got an av­er­age of half the answers wrong.

Time is of the essence

There is more ap­par­ent ur­gency around this now. The theme of the an­nual meet­ing of an as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties was “Pre­par­ing all stu­dents for civic par­tic­i­pa­tion”. More than 250 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have joined the Amer­i­can Democ­racy Project, which em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of skills such as how to fact-check the news. And more than 100 two-year com­mu­nity col­leges have signed The Democ­racy Com­mit­ment, pledg­ing to teach civics.

Cam­pus Com­pact is launch­ing a univer­sity-based ini­tia­tive called Ed­u­ca­tion for Democ­racy, to build voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, skills to en­gage with peo­ple who hold op­pos­ing opin­ions, the prin­ci­ple and prac­tice of democ­racy and news lit­er­acy.

One prob­lem is where to fit th­ese things into crowded cur­ric­ula. Uni­ver­si­ties once re­quired their stu­dents to take Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics, but those re­quire­ments slipped away in an era of broader choice.

Even if stu­dents wanted to take the only course in ba­sic gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics at one large Cal­i­for­nia univer­sity, the National As­so­ci­a­tion of Schol­ars cal­cu­lated as an ex­am­ple, the mod­ule had the ca­pac­ity to ac­com­mo­date a lit­tle more than one in 10 of them.

The 31 mem­ber uni­ver­si­ties of Project Per­i­cles, named af­ter the Greek or­a­tor and states­man, are work­ing to ad­dress this by in­cor­po­rat­ing civics con­tent into many sub­jects – an an­thro­pol­ogy class that con­sid­ers how to im­prove nu­tri­tion and health­care, for in­stance, or a bi­ol­ogy course that raises ques­tions about pri­vacy and fam­ily struc­ture.

But that has brought a back­lash from con­ser­va­tive groups, such as the con­ser­va­tive NAS, which ad­vo­cates that a course in tra­di­tional Amer­i­can civics de­signed by an in­de­pen­dent body be made a grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ment at ev­ery univer­sity that re­ceives gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

The as­so­ci­a­tion has ob­jected to the trend of uni­ver­si­ties pro­mot­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice as a way of teach­ing civics, say­ing that it un­fairly favours pro­gres­sive ac­tivism and “seems a di­ver­sion of the univer­sity from its in­tended mis­sion”, re­search di­rec­tor David Ran­dall said.

“There is a larger shift where you aban­don the search for truth and you em­brace the search for change,” said Dr Ran­dall.

Even some state ef­forts to re­quire more and more me­dia lit­er­acy and civics ed­u­ca­tion in pri­mary and sec­ondary schools have run into po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance.

At a time when “the na­tion is floun­der­ing, if not un­wind­ing”, uni­ver­si­ties have to find a way to nav­i­gate this morass, said Richard Guarasci, pres­i­dent of New York’s Wag­ner Col­lege and chair of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties. A for­mer po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, he agreed that they should stop just talk­ing about civics ed­u­ca­tion – or sprin­kling it into a few cour­ses – and re­turn to re­quir­ing it.

“Given the il­lit­er­acy we’re see­ing about pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment in the United States – and that’s what it is, it’s il­lit­er­acy – we haven’t done our job,” Dr Guarasci said. “I think that re­quires more than just a lit­tle bit of it in ev­ery course.”

Point of or­der the new pro­grammes aim to ad­dress ‘a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing’

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