Social Studies Opinion

We the People Vs. a Chosen Body: A Debate as Old as the Nation

By Harry C. Boyte — January 12, 2017 5 min read
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Dear Deb,

The context for our conversation about democracy in education has changed.

On Tuesday, January 10, a conservative group in higher education, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), released a report years in preparation, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “NAS...argues in its report that a ‘New Civics’ movement in higher education has supplanted objective teaching about the United States’ system of government with efforts to encourage students to engage in liberal or leftist political activism.”

The NAS is launching a well-funded campaign to reinstate what they call the “old civics” as a mandatory requirement in publicly funded education. They want to end public support for service-learning and other “civic engagement” efforts. They will likely find response from incoming Trump Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has an aggressive plan to privatize education. They will also target state legislatures.

Some argue that the inflammatory report, full of inaccuracies, should be ignored. Campus Compact is sponsoring the important work of fact-checking its errors.

The report is also an opportunity to engage diverse publics, across party lines, on the purpose of higher education and education. Today I offer the first draft of an argument to be developed, pointing beyond the poisonous partisanship which dominates today and illustrated by the report. I invite feedback.

We need education for citizen-centered democracy, coming alive in colleges and schools, workplaces and communities, professions and voluntary activities. This is not politics centered on government or market. It is politics centered on We the People in all our diversity. It can bringthe nation “to the great wells of democracy dug deep by our founding fathers,” as Martin Luther King put the movement purpose in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Citizen-centered democracy embodies the deep love of the country and its ideals which I learned as a young man in the civil rights movement working for King.

NAS supports an “old civics” with students learning “voting, serving on juries, running for office, serving in the military and all the other key ways in which citizens take responsibility for their government.” They propose that old civics has “has been stolen by left-wing activists who smuggle their agenda into colleges under the pretext of wholesome teaching.” Instead of teaching students “the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government,” says the report, “colleges teach students how to organize protests, occupy buildings and stage demonstrations.”

The theft has several elements, in NAS’s view. These include service-learning (academic credit for community service tied to course work) with roots in the anti-capitalist pedagogies of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. They include “civic engagement activities” such as student involvement in community groups (they argue the New Civics provides “free labor for progressive organizations”).

They target Public Achievement in particular, the youth empowerment initiative we have discussed. I began PA in 1990 as an effort to teach today’s young people the empowering, cross-partisan everyday politics I experienced in the citizenship schools of civil rights movement. NAS charges that Public Achievement seems innocuous but has a hidden aim, “camouflaged Alinskyism” -- a left wing agenda of “politics” and “power.”

The real Public Achievement aim, in their view, is to “capture institutions.” They cite my admiration for Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, who argued the need to change the institutional fabric of America to address structural racism and other inequities. The report says, “The focus on capturing institutions characterizes the entire New Civics’ movement, but it is particularly strong in Alinskyite organizations such as Public Achievement...the most influential vector within higher education.”

I can’t speak for the “civic engagement movement,” which is extremely diverse in political orientation. But I can affirm that PA represents a different kind of politics, “we the people” politics that seeks to win over the broad middle of society, not to polarize. This is how Rustin framed the message of the March.

The young African American philosopher Danielle Allen, now at Harvard, discovered the democratic heritage I learned as a young man in the movement while teaching working class and minority night students in Chicago a decade ago. The principles of the Declaration of the Independence inspired hope and action in her students and in herself, as it had inspired me.

In her magnificent book, Our Declaration Allen shows that the Declaration is based on the egalitarian idea that democracy is ongoing work, co-created by people from all backgrounds.

Jefferson elsewhere argued, “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” He wrote to Joseph Cabel in 1816, “Where everyman...is a participant in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year but every day...he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonapart.”

Allen also shows how the actions of Jefferson, a slave-owner, conflicted profoundly with his egalitarian ideals. We all know tragic ironies of the human condition too well.

The Declaration’s belief in civic agency - democratic power - as democracy’s foundation has animated every American movement for positive change. NAS’s view, in contrast, derives from James Madison, chief author of the Constitution.

“Democracy” for Madison was dangerous. The country is a “republic.” People should defer to elected officials (and professors). In Federalist Paper 10 Madison argued against Jefferson, “A chosen body of citizens” - i.e. politicians - are “more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”

There are principles which Jefferson and Madison shared like free press, freedom of speech, fair elections, etc., important to remember.

It is also important to remember that the debate between “We the People” and “a chosen body of citizens” is old as our nation.

We need it again.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.