With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sound the alarm! The "activists" are coming

The “democratic engagement” faction within civics education has recently re-energized and is pressing hard on schools to push kids into activism. -- Chester Finn
Finn (right) and his Fordham crew
The Occupy Movement, the Wisconsin recall initiative, and other signs of increased youth and student activism have education conservatives jittery. Chief among them is think-tanker Chester Finn, head of the right-wing Fordham Institue. His latest screed, "Should schools turn children into activists? And should Uncle Sam help?" is aimed at, what he imagines as the activist wing of civics education.
 On the other side, we find much greater emphasis on civic participation and activism, on voluntarism and “service learning,” and on what is often termed “collective decision making” (or problem solving) and “democratic engagement,” which often boils down into the communitarian view that issues facing society are best dealt with through group action, by people joining hands and working together rather than through the political process.
 Worse yet, moans Finn, is the role of the Dept. of Education and Arne Duncan in promoting this "democratic engagement" faction and Duncan's use of the words, "action civics". I must have somehow missed all that. The last thing I remember about Duncan was his mad attempt to head off Matt Damon at the airport in D.C. last summer, to keep him from speaking at the national Save Our Schools March & Rally. That must have been before he joined the "democratic engagement" faction.

But what really has Finn's toga all in a knot, is "A Crucible Moment," a  publication, written by D.O.E. higher-ups Martha Kantor and Eduardo Ochoa.While I admit, I only scanned the tract, it looks pretty good to me. Obviously, Finn is not me.

He is pissed that the D.O.E. awarded a contract to the Global Perspective Institute, Inc. (GPI) and a subcontract to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to lead a national dialogue that would result in recommendations about strengthening students’ civic learning and democratic engagement as a core component of college study. The result was the formation of a National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement headed by Larry Braskamp, who I remember as a progressive educator and decent guy from his days as dean at UIC's College of Education back in the early 90's.

Civics without action is an empty shell. Finn's attack on people for "joining hands and working together," shows how much disdain the ed-cons have for participatory democracy.


  1. Oligarchs are afraid of democracy... no doubt about it. As teachers who believe in social justice education we need to make sure that our role is facilitator, and not evangelist for any particular cause. Our job is to help students to think critically about the world and about what they are taught and then to take action as they see fit.

    If a student in my environmental science class looks at the data and critiques the sources from which those data have come and decides to become an activist for a view opposite my own, they I've still done my job well. My job is not to indoctrinate but to facilitate critical thinking and autonomy.

    Nobody who feels strongly that their opinions are valid should be threatened by this view. I guess some of the oligarchs aren't so secure in their opinions.


  2. Finn's fears are well-founded. Check it out. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/the-new-student-activism.html?pagewanted=all

  3. As if "joining hands and working together" is the polar opposite from the "political process." Both involve people concerned with an issue looking at each other, asking "now what", coming up with their own (inevitable biased) solutions, and working for a path the group can live with.

    The "political process"- if we take that to mean electoral politics- might differ only in that it's a lot more restrictive in who has the connections/resources to enter the room.


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.