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ANALYSIS: ‘Action Civics’ Could Make Your Kids Into Progressive Activists

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Bradley Devlin General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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Activists are pushing “Action Civics” programs and curriculum in K-12 schooling across the country. Also known as “Civic Engagement,” “New Civics” or “Project-Based Civics” programs, action civics aim to infect U.S. civics with progressive political activism.

These programs assume students best acquire a civics education through direct political action, whether it be on behalf of gun control or climate change legislation, according to action civics group Generation Citizen. Traditional civics classes do not engage students enough because they focus on connecting political theories to the United States’ system of government, action civics groups argue. Why bother learning about the ideas of a group of white men from nearly 250 years ago when schools can tap into students’ pressing political concerns to propel students into political activism from an early age?

A growing number of states are considering or have already adopted these programs, such as Massachusetts and Illinois where it is required. President Joe Biden’s White House is also primed to push action civics programs nationwide that will train a new generation of social-justice oriented, progressive activists. Biden’s Department of Education is eager to go along with the program, as it has committed to reforming civics education in order to “support the development of culturally responsive teaching and learning.”

But, unlike in previous educational reform pushes, there will be added emphasis on racial justice rooted in critical race theory. Critical race theory stipulates that America is fundamentally racist, yet it teaches people to view every social interaction and person in terms of race. Adherents of critical race theory push “antiracism” through the end of merit, objective truth and the adoption of race-based policies. (RELATED: Top Historians Slam NYT ‘1619 Project’ As It Infiltrates Public School Curriculum)

In the Biden administration proposal, both The New York Times’ 1619 Project and works from anti-racist professor Ibram X. Kendi are cited as examples of educational materials it seeks to include in civics classes around the country.

The 1619 Project, headed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, tries to reframe the American founding and subsequent history purely around the institution of slavery. Despite major corrections, the project won a Pulitzer prize; however, other Pulitzer prize winning historians have lambasted the work for mistruths and mischaracterizations. Yet, Biden believes this work should be pedaled in the classroom as a roadmap for civic activism.

Kendi, whose work again surged to the forefront in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May of 2020 and was featured on The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s page for educational resources, believes that any disparity between members of different races in American society is de facto proof of racism, and that the playing field must be leveled at all costs among racial lines, according to City Journal.

While the practice is often presented as a general good, some have pointed out in the past that the push for action civics is not only is a left-wing political project, it is incompatible with the concept of civics education altogether. In a National Association of Scholars (NAS) report called “Making Citizens,” David Randall asserts that action civics “redefines civics as progressive political activism… by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist.”

The ultimate goal of transforming civics is to transform America, Randall claimed in his 2017 report. Action civics pushes “de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international ‘norms’ over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals,” among other ideas.

However, by the time Randall’s report war released, the federal government had been shopping around reforms to civics education for five years.

When Biden was vice president under former President Barack Obama, the White House devoted resources to civic education reform. In 2012, the Association of American Colleges and Universities led a White House task force to delve into the concept of action civics. What emerged from their work was a report titled “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.”

The 2012 publication not only endorsed the concept of action civics, which had long ago taken root at institutions of higher education across America, but also formed concrete steps the federal government could take in order to promote such programs. Actions that were ultimately pursued later that year by Obama’s Department of Education at both the college and K-12 level.

“A Crucible Moment” acknowledged that “many are alienated by uncritically partisan debate among the politicians and the polity, by corporate influence over policy making, and by inefficient government processes.” However, the report remained undeterred by that.

“A significant portion of college students are interested in community service that leads to systemic social and political change… In reshaping the college experience, we need to capitalize [emphasis added] on the yearning, the inclination, and the commitments of such students,” the report argues.

This “systemic social and political change,” the report claimed, can be accomplished though promoting diversity, sustainability and global interdependence to tackle inequality and inequity.

Through this community service and political activism, the report claims, students generate a “Shared responsibility for a common future” — not for the United States, but for the world. “This is the crucible moment as the United States faces major challenges at home and abroad. Let us pledge to make it a transformative one that advances democratic values of liberty, justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare of the people and the planet,” the report concludes.

In her critique of “A Crucible Moment,” political theorist Diana Schaub noted that despite “much talk in Crucible Moment of ‘local and global generative partnerships’… the United States itself is oddly absent.” Schaub also pointed out that the word “patriotism” never appears in the report.

Notre Dame professor and political theorist Patrick Deneen also wrote a brief but sharp critique of the work in 2012. Deneen pointed out that the report envisioned a civics education regime that is “neither civic nor educative.” “A Crucible Moment,” Deneen argued, shows how disconnected America and the West has become from traditional political conceptions. A Crucible Moment” tried to dispatch of the Western civic tradition and aims to supplant civics with liberal policy ends, according to Deneen.