“Higher education groups, faculty members, and journalists portray ongoing efforts to counter critical race theory as authoritarian, heavy-handed, unfair, and illegal. However, they fail to recognize that liberal indoctrination on college campuses has rubbed American parents the wrong way.” Accuracy in Academia

“The Purdue University Board of Trustees on Monday (April 19) announced its plan to adopt a civics literacy graduation requirement for undergraduates, beginning with students who enter Purdue in fall 2021. The board will vote on the requirement at its June 11 public meeting.” Purdue Today, April 19, 2021.



The Emergence of Educational Institutions as Critical Instrumentalities of Economic and Political Domination and Subordination

As Marx wrote, “all history is the history of class struggle.” While this is correct, it is appropriate to ask why capitalism has sustained itself and grown, from industrial, to finance, to monopoly finance capital in the twenty-first century. Marxists, and others, usually have relied on explanations of the sustenance of capitalism emphasizing the role of the police, the military, and in less-violent ways the expansion of consumerism.  But what was hinted at in Marx’s German Ideology and powerfully articulated by Antonio Gramsci, ruling classes rule by force and consent. And in the new century both the sophistication of the instrumentalities of force, weapons, and consent, educational institutions and the media have grown enormously. There has been extended discussion in recent years about the military and police, but less so about education and the media. In the current century the latter have taken on importance for system maintenance and corporations and banks.

Educational Institutions and Ideological Hegemony

It is obvious that the maintenance of any political or economic order is the education of the young in such a way as to give legitimacy to it. In the 1960s political scientists began to study what they called “political socialization:” how and what people learn about the norms, values, and procedures that govern the maintenance of society. Some studies found that children begin to accept the virtues of political institutions, the presidency, the courts, political parties, at very young ages. What they learn about politics in the home is reinforced and developed in school systems. Selective presentations of history and the arts is provided by formal content and repeated rituals, such as the pledge to the flag, competitive sports, routinized social life such as dances. In addition, as theorists such as Jim Berlin have argued, the educational system not only produces and reproduces citizenship, but it also reproduces workers, giving young people appropriate skills in language an mathematics. Educational theorists have pointed out that the character of education develops and changes as the economy changes, from competitive to industrial, to monopoly capitalism.

In addition to adding “socialization” to the lexicon of analysis political scientists began to write about “political culture,” or the values and beliefs that dominate the thinking of most members of a society. Ideas about the basic units of society, individuals or communities for example, the relative importance in the society of cooperation or conflict, the role of “human nature” or institutions as primary forces in shaping society.  Perhaps most basic in the United States is the relative acceptance of private property or public goods as prime values.

In higher education, curricula reinforce and solidify the dominant ideas of the political culture. It is seen as social science and humanities disciplines reify standard paradigms about history, what is great art and philosophy, and what values are beyond reproach. In the post-World War II in the United States the dominant political culture was tinged with virulent anticommunism, the demonic other. Ruling classes, powerful corporations, and state institutions oversaw what was defined as legitimate educational content.

Meanwhile business schools and science and engineering programs were training young people in the schools necessary to promote the political economy. The humanities and social sciences grounded student learning in the acceptable political culture while the fields, what we call STEM, trained these same students in the tools of system maintenance. The former president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, coined the term “multiversity” to describe the functions of such institutions in the late twentieth century and he made it clear that the multiversity was supposed to serve the national security interests of the United States.

As Clark Kerr was leading the California university system young people became increasingly engaged in struggles against racism and escalating war in Vietnam. While these educational institutions became more repressive, as with the shootings of students at Jackson State and Kent State Universities, increased discourse on college campuses, sometimes initiated by faculty, was critical of the dominant political culture and its normal functioning, that s training workers for the economic machine. The university, to use a workplace metaphor, became “contested terrain.” Some faculty and students began to criticize the capitalist system, the war machine, the privatization of the commons, and histories that seemed to endorse patriarchy and racism. From the vantage point of those who rule, ideological hegemony had to be reimposed in the educational system. As conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh once proclaimed, “we,’ that is conservatives, control all major institutions except for the university.

In the twenty-first century, efforts of the defenders of capitalism have sought to reimpose the traditional political culture by privatizing public schools. Not only are charter schools a profitable source of investment, but they by virtue of their existence and curriculum reify the idea of the market, private over public goods, and opposition to teachers as workers and teacher unions, and the elimination of the tradition of public education entirely.

At the university level, traditional study of history and the arts (with all their ideological contestation) are being defunded while colleges and universities define science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as the primary purpose for having education systems. And major funds for STEM education and research come from huge corporations, particularly digital, drug, and agricultural corporations, and the military. And in the spirit of Limbaugh, the Koch brothers, the Association of Trustees and Administrators (ACTA), the State Policy Network, and the Associated Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) have worked with state legislatures to the early post-World II days when Kerr spoke approvingly of the multiversity. In sum. education from kindergarten through the university is increasingly designed to instill the ideology of the dominant political culture and to create a twenty-first century work force to serve the needs of monopoly/finance/global capitalism.

The Shock Doctrine, Covid 19 and Higher Education

For those of you who see “ideas as material forces” and grew up in an environment where the university was “contested terrain,” that is, where ideas were discussed, common assumptions were challenged, and students developed intellectual as well as political solidarity.

The idea of “the shock doctrine”. Naomi Klein tells us, is that economic and political crises afford the opportunity for the dominant classes to institute changes that majorities of people in usual times would not accept. In addition, a long time ago James O’Connor wrote about “The Fiscal Crisis of the State.” In the twenty-first century that has meant steep declines in public support for higher education. Finally, Nancy MacLean has written about the agenda of radical libertarians which includes reducing the role of the state as to administering, financing, and regulating public affairs, and relying more on market forces.

As a Goldman-Sachs memo suggests we might expect efforts by powerful forces to try to institute a “Post-Corona Virus Higher Education System” very different from the higher education many of us experienced.

Furthermore, the discussion of higher education in the context of the corona virus crisis is bringing to the foreground the profoundest of debates in society at large. The debate highlights those who celebrate individualism, the survival of the fittest, the market, and shrinking public institutions versus those who see community, solidarity, public institutions, and real democracy as our only hope for survival. Many of us learned about these two fundamentally competing worldviews in colleges and universities and we took our stand.

The Beginnings of Civic Literacy at Purdue University

“Trustee Malcolm DeKryger compared time at Purdue to an eye of a hurricane, where students were focused on the rigors of getting a degree.

‘There’s a lot stuff going on in our country and our civics going around us,’ DeKryger said. ‘But when you’re in the eye, it’s pretty quiet. … I guess that’s why I personally agree with that idea that we’ve got to make sure there is that touchpoint out there, so when you do go out into the world, you’re prepared.’”  (quoted in Dave Bangert, “Purdue Trustees, Mitch Daniels Reiterate Call for Civics Test Get A Diploma,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, June 18, 2019.

No one can dispute the value of education about the nation, the world, and the issues that have and will affect peoples’ lives in the short-and long-term future. Schools and universities, of course, have historically been primary venues for disseminating such information. However, most often politicians have preferred narratives about themselves and others that they wish to inculcate in the young. A more desirable form of information and analysis is one that is diverse, sensitive to one’s own past and present, and shows respect to narratives and experiences of other peoples and nations. This kind of “civics” education is a complicated and not achieved by learning isolated facts.

President Mitch Daniels, Purdue University, in the spring, 2019, proposed that the university require that each graduating senior at the university demonstrate a knowledge of what he called “civics.” The members of the Board of Trustees recently endorsed the idea and implicitly castigated faculty for not moving expeditiously to establish a civics certification process for graduating seniors. But faculty have questioned the need for such a certification, what civics education is, and how to provide for it. Specifically, they asked whether claims about civics ignorance at Purdue and elsewhere were true. They also asked whether taking a short-answer test really demonstrated knowledge of the United States government, its constitution, and the political process. Some faculty argued that such a need could only be satisfied by at least one course, perhaps in Political Science or History, that would provide a richer knowledge, raise competing understandings of the development of the United States government, and would allow for serious discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the American political experience. A ten or twenty item short answer test, they argued, would not reflect the more subtle and sophisticated needs of civics education.

Some faculty were puzzled by why, in the context of the existence of a set of university core requirements already in existence, this idea of a civics certification emerged. One possible source of the idea of some kind of civics education can be seen in a January 2016 report published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), an organization founded by the State Policy Network, which is tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Charles and David Koch Foundation. The report called “A Crisis in Civic Education,” describes a survey it sponsored in 2015 that demonstrates that college graduates and the public in general lack knowledge of “our free institutions of government.” It listed examples of some basic facts about government and history that respondents failed to answer correctly. These included a lack of understanding of how the constitution could be amended, which institution has the power to declare war, and who was “the father of the constitution.”

Perhaps ACTA’s underlying concern was suggested by a quote in the preface of the document attributed to Louise Mirrer, President of the New York Historical Society, who received an ACTA award in 2014 “for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education.” She said that in the contemporary world of conflicts between religious, ethnic and racial groups, Americans need to be reminded of US history “…especially as that history conveys our nation’s stunning successful recipe, based on the documents of our founding, for an inclusive and tolerant society.” (Apparently, she forgot the limitations on the rights of Blacks, women and those without property to vote in “the documents of our founding.”)   In addition, the report takes aim at community service programs, which it asserts “…give students little insight into how our system of government works and what roles they must fill as citizens of a democratic republic.”

It is clear, therefore, that what the ACTA report (and one could reasonably assume what has motivated the recommendation of President Daniels, himself an award recipient from ACTA) and the Purdue Board of Trustees regards as civics education is a narrative that celebrates the American experience. These sources presume that specific facts about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers and basic truisms about the United States as a “melting pot” constitute civics education. Although civics education is surely a desirable goal of education at every level, K through college, it requires moving beyond memorizing basic facts to more subtle examinations about the American experience, including exposing students to debates about how and why that experience has unfolded in the way that it has.

What Would a Discussion of Democracy Look Like?

Everything we Americans have learned since infancy suggests that the United States is a democracy. In fact, the United States political system, we are told repeatedly, is the gold standard for the world. Distinguished data source Freedom House claims that freedom can only exist in democratic political systems. Democratic systems are those in which governments are accountable, the rule of law exists, and associations and speech are guaranteed to all. Polity IV, another data-based source of information about governments, has a more refined definition of democracy: procedures by which citizens can express their preferences about leaders and policies and there exists both constraints on executive power and guarantees of civil liberties.

University of Iowa Political Science Professor William M. Reisinger prepared a chart summarizing the key components of democracy reflected in the writings of political philosophers (such as Aristotle), politicians (John C. Calhoun), skeptics (H. L. Mencken), and a variety of contemporary political scientists. He appends to his chart 25 quotations that illustrate variations in the understanding of the concept “democracy.” Reisinger identifies five emphases in most writings on the subject.

“1)it is a dangerous form of government; 2)it includes genuine competition for power; 3)it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4)it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5)it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good” (William M. Reisinger, “Selected Definitions of Democracy,”

For example, a real civics education might address questions such as:

-What is democracy? Is it just about voting or does it also include the distribution of society’s resources?

-What is power? Who has power in the United States political system? How did they get it? Is the distribution of power and influence in the United States democratic?

-How are people elected to public office? What kind of resources do they need to run for public office? What kind of people are likely to be elected to public office such as relating to their class, race, gender, nationality, and occupations?

-How do policies get introduced, discussed, debated, and passed? Who influences the policymaking process? What role do powerful interest groups play in the policy process?

-What role do political parties play in the electoral and policy process?

-In the United States have there been population groups who have not been the beneficiaries of the political system? Who are they? Why have they not enjoyed the benefits of the political system? What is gerrymandering?

To answer these questions requires that students take a course or more that addresses these issues, perhaps in Departments of Political Science and/or History. For sure, if students lack civics literacy (and that is an empirical question) it cannot be achieved by answers to a series of short answer questions but thorough study, recognizing that answers to the questions are complicated with differing possible answers. And addressing these questions in multiple ways would constitute a real civics education.

Historicizing the Drive for Civics Literacy

Histories of higher education suggest that universities have always been, as the workplace metaphor suggests, “contested terrain.” Administrators have sought to shape what and how knowledge is disseminated, to whom, by whom, and for what purposes. Higher education since the 1960s particularly has been contested. Clark Kerr, referred to above, saw education as inclusive of many strands, scientific and humanist, but always designed to serve the interests of the United States as a world power.

The campus conflicts of the sixties and beyond grew over the content of higher education, classes and programs, who the educators should be, and the influence said educators should have in the planning process; what AAUP calls “shared governance.” From the 60s until today, faculty, students, and communities were able to create programs on peace, women, race and racism, ethnic studies, the environment, and to a considerable degree programs that were interdisciplinary in character. While the popularity of these programs grew enormously from the 1960s, there have always been powerful political and economic interest groups seeking to oppose newer curricula. The relative power of the “pushback” has directly related to the strength of these forces outside the university on the one hand: from business, to politics, compared to the mobilization of students and other consumers of education on the other hand.

In this context, the rise of conservative forces, illustrated by the Koch brothers and their institutional creations, such as ALEC, the State Policy Network, Americans for Prosperity, ACTA, gained momentum over the last several years, particularly since the election of the first African American President Barack Obama in 2008. It is in this context that ACTA solicited the report on higher education referred to above which called for a program in civics literacy.

Since the ACTA report, the US has experienced increased police violence (from the aftermath of Ferguson to George Floyd and beyond), the rise of a new generation of Black Lives Matter Activists, Native Americans protesting the construction of oil pipelines that would destroy native lands, outrages against malfeasance of the Trump administration including the president’s endorsement of racism and the super-exploitation of women, and reversal of environmental policies designed to modestly slow the destruction predicted by climate change. At the University of North Carolina Nicole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure because an influential alum objected to her work on the 1619 Project. This project led to a New York Times magazine supplement which documented impacts of white supremacy occurring throughout U.S. history. In parallel actions, several state legislatures have moved to ban so-called “critical race theory” from classrooms. Therefore, in this social, political, and cultural environment cynicism about government has risen, the legitimacy of government has declined, and more and more young people (such as the Parkland students) have begun to challenge the system of political and economic order.

Therefore, it is in this context, the crisis of legitimacy, that significant political forces have seen the necessity of transforming the content of education back to the day when paradigms in virtually all fields celebrated American exceptionalism.   Boards of Trustees, educational administrators, and politicians believe that the deepening legitimacy crisis among the citizenry, particularly the young, can be alleviated in the aftermath of the pandemic either through creating sanitized programs of civic literacy or banning educational content that bears critically on United States history and politics. Thus, the long-term crisis of legitimacy in the country, its exacerbation in recent years, and the occasion of the pandemic have provided the opportunity for efforts to transform the educational process.

Harry Targ, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, Purdue University

Dan Morris, Professor of English, Purdue University

For more details on the Purdue case see Dan Morris, “Dictating Civics…” below: