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Are American Colleges and Universities Teaching Civics or Something Else?



by Anne Hill, MFE investigator | August 21, 2023


Across the country over the past decade, Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, CLDE, has expanded into our colleges and universities. As an off-shoot of this progressive effort, our country is more often referred to as a democracyrather than what it actually is, a constitutional republic. Perhaps subliminal messaging is part of the ongoing push.


The Obama White House, through the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), commissioned a study on the status of education. The resultant 2012 report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, promoted transitioning public education from its current focus on preparing and training the national workforce to making civic and political engagement a core part of civic engagement.


Since school districts across the country had removed the study of Civics from middle and high school curricula decades ago, U.S. students were no longer taught the basics of local, state, and national government. High school graduates often lacked a fundamental understanding of civic roles and responsibilities.


Students entering college, having attained little foundational understanding of the basic principles and structures of the U.S. government, were ill-equipped to tackle collegiate-level global civics. This hurdle could be compared to asking a student, who had not yet learned how to add, subtract, and divide, to tackle calculus.


The definition of Civics or Civic Learning also changed. Course content, formerly taught from textbooks that local school boards or curriculum committees had approved, shifted from the study of a citizen’s rights and duties to courses teaching political activism. To better understand this shift, one needs only to follow the money.


Money shifts course content


Colleges and universities are funded by anyone who contributes, and foreign billionaires are using this opportunity to promote their ideological agendas. These agendas include: globalism, climate change, and gun violence, to name a few.


Non-profits such as Civic Nation and Civic Influencers (formerly Civic Election Engagement Project, CEEP) claim to be non-partisan. But a look at the content of their materials tells a different story. In 2015, in response to Campus Compact’s call to action to kick off a nationwide effort advancing Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, higher education associations NASPA (Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education) and AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities) partnered with the New York Times and Campus Compact to form a coalition of universities and colleges. The coalition held a four-day national summit in New Orleans. Of the 156 offerings for participants, 35% of the offerings presented approaches to design civic learning and democratic engagement programming 20% addressed networking, 17% dealt with issues of social justice, environmentalism, DEI, and advocacy/activism training, 12% taught on messaging, 10% focused on analytics, and 5% addressed funding. (See session list below.)


Today, this well-funded group is essentially designing college curricula. But these courses hardly teach critical thinking based on principles fundamental to the preservation of a constitutional republic. Instead, students are taught to become activists spreading pre-ordained messages. Is this civics education or is it activism? Is it teaching critical thinking or propagandizing students to become pre-programmed robots?


TurboVote, a software program and project of Democracy Works, a left leaning advocacy group, provided three offerings on using their software on campuses. Democracy Works receives money from many of the largest left-of-center political funding groups and foundations.


The results on campuses throughout the country are what one would expect. At Grand Valley State University, a professor, a Michigan Democrat senator, and a Michigan Democrat representative created a course specific to their personal issue. The DEM101 course, in addition to hyping one side of the controversial PFAS pollution issue, implored students to be passionate about the environment, engage their friends, family, and lawmakers, and to volunteer.



More importantly, the course advocated for students to donate to specific environmental non-profits and to vote for lawmakers that would talk with students about the issues they cared about, as these two lawmakers were doing.


Since when has a college class been less about exploring an issue and more about propagandizing one side of it, plus promoting student donations to specific groups and politicians? Where was the process of aligning information with time-tested principles and standards of measurement? What happened to challenging students to apply the scientific method to examine an issue and decide for themselves how best to proceed?


Instead, students are required to sit through these faux scientific classes and regurgitate their professor’s opinions in order to pass the class and graduate.


The shift in educational approach begs the question: Are these classes designed to empower students to think for themselves, or are they designed to train students to work for a progressive funder’s cause?


A question of partisanship


When higher education institutions, associations, and foundations partner to become intentional collaborators, the public has a right and a duty to question whether these relationships are truly non-partisan. Are these alliances using technology, convenience, and sophisticated propaganda techniques to manipulate unsuspecting students to specific organizations and vote for politicians that promise to advance the goals, size and power of the higher education industry?


Publicly funded colleges and universities are obligated to provide fair and balanced representations of ideas and perspectives, not merely to promote a narrowly defined and select few. The public has an obligation to become involved in our local, publicly funded colleges and universities to ensure that these institutions are teaching accurate and fundamental civics, not cookie-cutter national or global values. Each individual is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


America’s unique Constitution preserves citizens’ rights to form and express their own opinions, to grow their values from life’s educational journey, not to have their words, thoughts, or actions crafted by organizations with ulterior motives.


In his 1961 inaugural address, newly elected President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” At that time, there was what was called a “new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.” Civics education should be tempered, disciplined and proud, not bought off by non-profits wanting students to do their bidding.


To learn more about the non-profit organizations with which colleges and universities are partnering, readers may contact a public institution’s Civic Learning and Community Engagement department.


Anne Hill, a member of MFE’s communications team, holds a Master of Business Administration degree. She lives in Clinton County, Michigan.
















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