Dictating Civics: How the Purdue Civics Literacy Requirement Was Imposed by Trustees and Administrators

On June 11, 2021, the Purdue Board of Trustees passed a civics literacy requirement for undergraduates despite opposition from the faculty senate. Placed in the context of what happened at the University of North Carolina in April, when, as Lindsie Rank reports, “the board of trustees refused to approve the faculty’s recommendation to offer tenure to award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project,” I regard Purdue’s Board of Trustees approval of a civics requirement as part of a disturbing pattern of recent incidents in which institutions, influenced by right-leaning politicians, donors, and administrators, have enabled non-specialists to shape instruction in American history, governance, and culture while limiting faculty control over their areas of professional expertise. Purdue faculty senators, as well as the almost two hundred Purdue faculty who sent letters to the Board of Trustees urging reconsideration of the civics requirement, strongly support opportunities for students to learn more about American history and government. Faculty opposed the requirement because it appeared to them to be an infringement on faculty governance over a curricular matter and a sign of the board’s unwillingness to include faculty in the final stages of approving the new requirement.

Purdue’s Civics Literacy requirement is one among many recent attempts by conservatives – the university’s president, Mitchell E. Daniels, is the former Republican governor of Indiana and served as a senior budget official in the George H.W. Bush administration — to frame how American history and government are taught at public educational institutions from kindergarten to the university level throughout the United States. As AAUP President Irene Mulvey writes to AAUP members:

At this time, when our nation is confronting deep-rooted racial inequity and having honest and long-overdue conversations about our history, legislators in a number of states have moved to shut down the conversation by restricting teaching about oppression, race, and gender.

The details vary, but generally the bills prohibit teaching or training in public educational institutions about vaguely defined “divisive concepts,” including racism and oppression. Some apply only to K–12 education, while others include higher education. Many include prohibitions on teaching about “critical race theory,” though most of the bills extend far beyond this. While many of the bills in question have not yet advanced, some have been signed into law—and they all have the potential to chill the free exchange of ideas at universities and colleges, and violate core AAUP principles. In some states, college courses have already been cancelled over concerns that they might run afoul of this legislation.

Mulvey’s comments are especially relevant to residents in Purdue’s home state, where, as Stuart Greene writes, Indiana’s Republican Attorney General, Todd Rokita, “is leading a multi-state effort calling on the Biden administration to drop a proposal aimed at funding more comprehensive and inclusive civics and history programs.” Alongside Rokita’s proposal, which critiques Critical Race Theory and Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racism scholarship, I would add such concurrent proposals as Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ civics literacy initiative, which, according to one Florida history professor, Brandon Jett, is designed to be a “bulwark to ‘unsanctioned narratives like critical race theory,’” as well as Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which self-describes on its website as one that “looks beyond time and borders to explore the fundamental questions of life, freedom, and governance. One that looks inward to the guiding principles of America’s founders and the leaders who have inspired us.”

In public commentaries, Daniels describes the Purdue civics literacy requirement as different in intent from the kind of overtly reactionary proposals advocated by Rokita and DeSantis. By contrast to Rokita and DeSantis, who directly condemn Critical Race Theory and bar it from their civics literacy proposals, Daniels asserts that the Purdue civics program will not involve interpretation and critique of any kind, but rather will be, in his terms, “very factual” (Daniels, May 6, 2021). Instead of indoctrination of students towards any point of view, Daniels states, the Purdue requirement, simply put, will involve probing for facts about American government, not engaging in opinions and interpretations. Responding to a caller on the “Washington Journal” CSPAN program about the Purdue civics literary, who complained that his children’s and grandchildren’s experience at Pennsylvania public colleges had been sullied by faculty who treated their education as a “liberal indoctrination bootcamp,” Daniels pledged to “guard against indoctrination of any kind by taking every precaution we know how.” Asked by “Washington Journal” moderator Bill Scanlan about the nature of the exam questions for the civics requirement, Daniels said that “those who put the program know they need to be factual and very objective. [The questions will] probe for knowledge of how our system is set up and why.” Contra the value-neutral terms in which Daniels describes the civics literacy requirement, I will spend the rest of this essay demonstrating that the civics literacy initiative at Purdue is part of a wider effort taking place during Daniels’s time as university president to reform how American history, government, and culture are administered at Purdue while explicitly challenging the legitimacy of Liberal Arts faculty expertise in their areas of professional specialty.

Daniels often celebrates the fact that Purdue fares well in US News and World Reports rankings on “innovation.” When it comes to his views on the humanities in general at Purdue, and the teaching of history, however, his “innovative” moves have had a decidedly backwards-leaning dimension. “Innovation” connotes a return to a 1980s-style “culture war” ideological attack on humanistic studies at Purdue. In separate editorials published in the Washington Post in 2018 (the year before he began his push for a civics literacy requirement) Daniels and Purdue Liberal Arts Dean David Reingold slammed contemporary practices in the liberal arts at Purdue and elsewhere. They ignored policy changes at Purdue that have caused a reverse in long-standing growth in liberal arts enrollments: changing course requirements in colleges outside of the liberal arts, shifting the percentage of the overall makeup of incoming first year classes away from liberal arts admissions and towards ramping up the numbers of students in other colleges, and the removal of three popular liberal arts departments (kinesiology, psychology, and audiology) from the College of Liberal Arts. Rather than considering broader policy and curricular changes in the university, Dean Reingold blames Liberal Arts faculty for failing to excite and to inspire Purdue students to want to take their courses:

We have lost sight of the fact that our courses may be stale, overly dogmatic and uninteresting to students, accepting our role as an often-unwanted requirement on the path to a diploma.

The result of these unforced errors is that, for many, the liberal arts no longer are an integral part of what constitutes a college education. They are easily replaced. A three-week overseas study class has become acceptable to fulfill the sole humanities component of a plan of study. (Reingold, 2018)

Like Reingold, Daniels claims Liberal Arts faculty engage in groupthink and lack diversity, offering a “monotonously one-sided view of the world” to the point that English departments and sociologists “want to render themselves irrelevant.” In published commentaries, Daniels asserts that liberal arts as currently taught are “boring,” that liberal arts scholarship is “shoddy” and that Liberal Arts faculty think in a way that is so “monolithic” and conformist and that Liberal Arts faculty do not really need tenure because Liberal Arts faculty think alike anyway and therefore do not need academic protection for freedom of thought.

In a Washington Post opinion piece about World War One commemoration and using the concept of “presentism” as a straw man, Daniels chastises professional historians who challenge the American Exceptionalism narrative of the nation’s persistent ascent towards a more perfect union: “It [presentism] finds further expression in the sneering denigration of America’s history and, it seems, almost all those who made it. A better reading is that the story line of America, with all its imperfections past and continuing, is about the steady expansion of human freedom and unprecedented, widespread material prosperity.”

Daniels’ rather old-fashioned account of American history as a “steady expansion of human freedom” creates the false assumption that the “story line” of America’s progressive tendencies is inevitable and always moving in a line of ascent towards expanded economic, civic, and human rights. No struggle. No resistance. No potentially permanent backsliding on hard won victories in environmental protections, labor rights, human rights, voting rights, rights for women, African Americans, queer communities, and indigenous peoples. Daniels’ narrative is dangerous because it simply flies in the face of the historical record, historical scholarship, and indeed, innovation.

In terms of his role as what Benoit Godin would refer to as an “innovating ideologist,” Daniels has been the most outspoken critic of humanities scholarship and education at Purdue of any university president since the development of the College of the Liberal Arts (then known as the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education) in the 1960s. He has persistently advocated for a return in literary studies to a Great Books curriculum and, as in the following comments he made in 2018 to an ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) group in an address called “Re-Liberalizing the Liberal Arts,” he has been a vociferous critic of contemporary humanities research and instruction:

In the university context, the “liberal” arts have in many places become centers of the most illiberal viewpoints. Speech codes, forbidden words, compulsory “thought crime” reeducation, and other repressive policies have replaced the lively clash of ideas. Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by generations of self-perpetuating personnel practices, has by now achieved comic-tragic proportions.

The paradoxically atavistic innovation of a 21st Century version of a 1980s style “culture war” at Purdue has shaken morale among Liberal Arts faculty and put the humanities faculty on the defensive while providing the cover for neoliberal polices that include the radical shift in the humanities at Purdue away from tenure-line appointments, a shift so severe that the Department of English has, for example, not been authorized to hire in literary or cultural studies on the tenure track since 2008.

Let me compare the comments Daniels made about history teaching in the Washington Post in 2018 to those he made during the CSPAN interview with Scanlan a little more than a month before the Board of Trustees approved the civics literacy requirement despite opposition from the faculty senate and sustained pressure by AAUP. Asked by Scanlan about the parameters of Purdue’s civics literacy requirement, Daniels said the first task was to focus on “facts.” Daniels’s “fact,” however, is the following interpretation of American history: the “fact this country has represented a steady progress of freedom, for all its faults, past and present.” At the same time, Daniels continues, the goal of the civic literacy requirement is “not simply a factual understanding, which has to be a starting point, but also some sense of how these systems [of American government] protects their [the students’] personal dignity, and their chance to have a successful life, on the basis they determine, and not dictated to them by some higher power.” In defending what he goes on to call a “very objective” civics literacy program, Daniels fails to acknowledge the difference between “facts” and “interpretations,” which, frankly, is an essential skill that a robust education in civics literacy should provide to students. His interpretation of American history as a “steady progress of freedom”– Daniels does not distinguish between “freedom from” and “freedom to” — is the main “fact” he wants to get across the “certify” through the civics requirement. On CSPAN, Daniels discusses the parameters of the exam Purdue students will need to pass to get their undergraduate degrees. He makes a strenuous effort to separate what the exam WILL DO — make sure students “understand” the “system” — and what the civics literacy program will exclude: ” “If you [presumably the liberal Purdue student] think there is something about our system, and our constitution, that ought to change, then that is a separate issue.”

Responding to a CSPAN caller on how K-12 public education has failed to teach civics literacy, Daniels states that “nothing would make me happier than to be able to terminate the Purdue program” once “every student who arrived [at Purdue] would [already] know everything we believe they should know.” In my view, the comments reveal how the requirement serves as a form of indoctrination. Rather than imagining civics education at the undergraduate level as an opportunity for Purdue students to complicate their understandings of American history and governance, Daniels states that “everything we believe [students] should know” about civics literacy could, in an ideal educational system, occur as early as kindergarten, and certainly should be accomplished before students arrive at Purdue for their first year.

Is it too far-fetched for me to regard the civics certification at Purdue as a kind of latter-day version of a “loyalty oath,” a pledge of allegiance to Daniels’ narrative of American ascent towards “freedom” that all Purdue students – including internationals — must take before receiving their degree? I connect this final certification to how a 2020-2021 “Diversity and Inclusion” lecture series at Purdue concluded on April 20 with Shelby Steele’s renunciation of the value of “Diversity and Inclusion” in the final presentation of the series. As Phoenix Dimagiba reports in the Purdue Exponent, Steele’s presentation to the “Pursuing Racial Justice Together” series amounted to an attack on the concept of “diversity and inclusion” with special criticism on affirmative action.

“This is one of the great tragedies, it seems to me, of Black American life,” he said. “We’ve come to the point where our power in the society in which we live is based not on our achievement of anything but on the fact that we have been victimized by the society.”

Affirmative action policies only make this worse, Steele said.

“That’s what bothers me,” he said. “In a twisted way, it seduces Blacks into believing in and doing business on the basis of their own inferiority.”

Compared to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, Steele said he believes contemporary organizations like Black Lives Matter only further this victimization. “They believe in the power of victimization and nothing else,” he said. “They take the wound of oppression and massage it. They are the enemy of Black American advancement.”

Steele’s presentation and the “civics literacy” program, which requires students accept the “fact” of an American historiography that emphasizes ascent into freedom, are models of containment of resistant narratives that call for a clear-eyed confrontation with America’s past and for a bold and innovative way of imagining America’s future.

In her FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) article on the civics literacy controversy, Katie Kortepeter offers a more hopeful model than my own for how faculty can teach civics in a way that will not “contradict the Purdue University Code, which promotes shared governance between the board, the administration, and the faculty on policies ‘intended to achieve the educational objectives of Purdue University.’” Kortepeter writes, “Ideally, Purdue students will learn civics from professors who feel valued by the administration, are fully engaged with the material, and are excited about their role in shaping the next generation of active citizens.” As I have demonstrated, Purdue leadership has not made faculty who teach history, politics, and culture feel “valued” by the administration, but rather denigrated and belittled.

One reason that Kortepeter believes Purdue faculty have a fighting chance to take back control over civics literacy is based on her observation that Daniels influenced Purdue to adopt the Chicago Principles to foster the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, from my point of view, Daniels’ public comments on why he supports the Chicago Principles fits into his overall critique of how left-leaning humanities professors have engaged in “groupthink” that stifles genuine diversity of thought on campus. In “Free speech’s worst enemies aren’t who you’d expect,” his 2018 editorial in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, Daniels argues that although historically free speech initiatives in the United States have been put forward to protect leftists – we recall a long history of punishment, retribution, and banishment faced by American progressives from Eugene V. Debs and Rosa Luxemburg to the Hollywood Eight and the Chicago Seven — the current moment, counterintuitively, requires the Chicago Principles to protect the rights of conservatives to speak freely on college campuses where, he argues, campus leftists silence conservative voices:

Within weeks of each other, two prominent speakers recently visited the university where I work and made strikingly similar observations. Nadine Strossen, former longtime president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Geoffrey Stone, a renowned constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago, each noted with bemusement that the people whose freedom of speech they had most often labored to protect are now too often its worst enemies. Their careers had begun by defending leftist causes against autocratic rules and institutions, they said, but now involve arguing against the intolerance of those who had typically been allies.

I end my essay with details about how Purdue concluded its “Diversity and Inclusion” series with Steele’s criticism of the concepts, and of how Daniels has brought the Chicago Principles on Free Speech to Purdue to protect conservative voices from what he calls “intolerance” by leftists. I do so because I interpret the civics literacy requirement as part of a larger pattern initiated during the Daniels administration to shape American history, government, and culture education and discourse at Purdue. Another part of that pattern occurred in August 2020, when College of Liberal Arts Dean David Reingold restructured the School of Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS) administration by reducing program directorships from sixteen to six and by ceasing payment for SIS administrator’s summer salaries and stipends. The SIS restructuring was eventually deferred for one year after faculty pushed back against the outsized burden interdisciplinary programs such as American Studies, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies were carrying as part of COVID-19 budget cuts when compared to other College of Liberal Arts units. Nonetheless, the SIS administrative restructuring plan fits a pattern of centralizing control over programs connected to civics education. The SIS restructuring plan would defund programs that tend to challenge the “ascent to freedom” narrative of American history that the civics literacy requirement demands that Purdue students must accept before they are “certified” to receive their undergraduate degrees.

Guest blogger Daniel Morris is a Professor of English and AAUP member at Purdue University, and this essay is based on his presentation last week at the AAUP Shared Governance Conference.