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Mid-week roundup: civic engagement and technology

A mid-week roundup of civic-related happenings we found interesting:

  • CommonPlace and NextDoor are two new (to us) online sites that act as bulletin boards for real-life local communities. The goal is to facilitate community engagement by providing a place where neighbors can share information, ask for help, plan meetings, and organize service projects–among other things–that form the basis for local civic life.  The Social Capital Blog has a good introduction to these sites, and the folks at e-democracy discuss similar efforts.
  • The Pew Research Center came out with new findings this week on “Why Americans Use Social Media.” Roughly two thirds of users (the total number of which comprise about 66% of all American adults) use platforms like Facebook and Twitter mainly to stay in touch with family members and friends.
  • Past Pew research shows that about 20% of adults use the Internet to talk to neighbors and keep informed about community issues.
  • Our friends at the National Council on Citizenship (NCoCinterview John Bridgeland, author of the new book Heart of a Nation: 9/11 & America’s Civic Spirit.

Send us more things to feature in the next roundup!

Chart credit: Pew Research Center

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Register now: Civics 2.0, Citizenship Education for a New Generation

Citizenship education is lacking in public and private schools: 75 percent of high school seniors cannot name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution, fewer than half of eighth graders know the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and less than a quarter of young Americans regularly vote, according to a recent survey released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In addition, civic dialogue is becoming ever more polarized, while public service is openly disdained by many. Previous school reforms have focused on graduation rates and reading and math scores, neglecting education about citizenship and resulting in a lack of basic knowledge about issues at the core of what has made America great.

School reformers are themselves deeply engaged in powerful civic and political action: transforming American educational policy and practice. This presents an opportunity to ensure that America’s schools also focus—as they once did—on forging engaged, empowered citizens. Sponsored by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, Frederick M. Hess, AEI’s director of education policy studies; Meira Levinson, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and David E. Campbell, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, have commissioned leading researchers and scholars to explore the issues of citizenship and schooling by looking at domestic and international data, teacher training, and schools and classrooms. The research presented at this AEI event will illuminate how America’s schools can renew their focus on forging engaged and empowered citizens.

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The Program in the news

The Program on American Citizenship has been in the news lately. Check us out at the following links:

Discussing the future of ROTC with the Christian Science Monitor,

Praising a new initiative by Dickinson College to strengthen the relationship between liberal arts colleges and military institutions,

and, last but not least, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cites one of the key findings from our teacher survey in his remarks at the recent iCivics conference.

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U.S. Citizens fail naturalization test

Ready to feel depressed? Newsweek asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, and 38 percent failed. What does this mean?

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Will Columbia be next?

Columbia University’s Task Force on Military Engagement just released its full report on ROTC. As previously reported, the student survey went in favor of bringing ROTC back to campus: Sixty percent of students approved restoring the program. A quick look at some of the findings:

Not surprisingly, of the five academic programs surveyed, the School of General Studies (GS), with its large veteran population, is most in favor of ROTC with 71 percent voting yes. The advocacy of student veterans has been critical to the ROTC fight. Moreover, their very presence on campus has helped shift student (and even faculty) attitudes toward the military; as Peter Awn, the GS dean, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[T]he traditional students find [student veterans] really interesting. … I think this is good for Columbia undergraduate education. It adds something unique to the intellectual discourse in the classroom that we have not had for decades.”

For that reason, recent changes to the G.I. Bill – capping private tuition at $17,500 and lacking a grandfather clause for current students – are worrisome. The return of ROTC to elite campuses is crucial to bridging thegrowing divide between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect. But so too is the important but often ignored role student veterans play on campus.

The other strongly supportive program is Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science with 70 percent in favor. Given the military’s preference for technical majors, these students would likely benefit the most from a new ROTC program – particularly a Naval ROTC unit – and could constitute a prime recruiting pool for the armed forces. One can hope that their continued strong interest in ROTC might encourage the Navy to reinstate a program on campus if invited. At the moment, there’s no Navy commissioning opportunity for Columbia students – and for that matter, the majority of New York City college students.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Harvard to allow ROTC to return

Great news: Harvard University will officially recognize its Naval ROTC program tomorrow. The agreement – to be signed by Harvard president Drew Faust and Navy secretary Ray Mabus – marks the end of the school’s 41-year ban against the program.

Participating students will still go to MIT for ROTC classes, but Harvard will resume financial responsibility for its cadets and will provide office and training space. In addition, the university has appointed a chair of a new ROTC implementation committee: Kevin “Kit” Parker, a professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and an Army major who served three tours in Afghanistan.

Harvard is in talks with the other service branches about reinstating its Army and Air Force programs.

This is a great moment both for Harvard and ROTC. Other universities – Yale, Columbia, Brown, and Stanford – should follow suit.

Columbia may be poised to do just that. In still more good news, the university’s Task Force on Military Engagement just released the results of its student survey on ROTC. Sixty percent of the students surveyed approved a “return of ROTC to Columbia’s campuses.” The hecklers can consider themselves outnumbered.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Why the wait?

Why the wait? That’s the question ACTA president Anne Neal is asking Harvard about restoring ROTC to campus. As she points out, providing official recognition to ROTC – as opposed to establishing a new unit on campus – is an action that the university can and should undertake immediately.

Harvard president Drew Faust’s response is disappointing. While she confirmed that the university is in discussion with the military, she noted that those discussions were focused on “the gay and lesbian issue” and that the transgender issue still has to be sorted through:

“The issues that are being voiced now by transgender students are ones that I think the military hasn’t entirely sorted through because it has been posed to them over the last two decades in terms of gays and lesbians,” Faust said.

“These are voices that have become much more forceful and much more vocal in recent years.”

Meanwhile, Harvard’s archrival – Yale – is moving forward. Fox News notes that Yale has taken the “biggest actual steps in returning the ROTC to campus” with President Richard C. Levin even contacting Defense secretary Robert Gates to express Yale’s interest in establishing a new unit.

Foot-draggers should also take note that pressure for restoring ROTC is stepping up. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called on Columbia to reinstate its ROTC program, while Congressman Duncan Hunter is urging President Obama to make good on his State of the Union address promise and ensure universities “open their doors” to ROTC – via the Solomon Amendment, if necessary.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Around the web

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Columbia’s ROTC opponents

From the Columbia Spectator, an amusing story about ROTC opponents who are feeling unduly chastised by the media storm over the treatment of Iraq veteran Anthony Maschek at a student forum. Members of the Coalition Against ROTC whine that the student forums “do not provide a safe space” and they are being smeared in the media as “being unpatriotic and harassing veterans.” None of them, however, seem to be aware that a good way not to be perceived as “harassing veterans” is not to harass veterans and to disavow those members of your group that do. It’s notable that not one person quoted in the article expresses any regret whatsoever about the incident in which anti-ROTC students called Maschek a “racist” and laughed at him. One student, Sumayya Kassamali, does call the incident “profoundly sad,” but only because it demonstrates a “lack of space for any criticism of the military.” Until the Coalition Against ROTC issues a strong statement denouncing the treatment of Anthony Maschek, reasonable people are going to come to the conclusion that they are in fact anti-military – they just don’t like being called on it.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Columbia students respond

Not surprisingly, Columbia students are rushing to disassociate themselves with the protesters who heckled veteran Anthony Maschek at a student forum on ROTC. The forum’s organizers – including some prominent on-campus ROTC supporters – have told the Columbia Spectatorthat the hecklers are not representative of the university, and both Maschek and the Columbia MilVets have issued statements affirming their largely positive experiences at Columbia and the school’s strong support for veteran students.

The students are right, and outside observers should be careful about drawing conclusions about campus sentiment toward the military based on a single incident. As shameful as the treatment of Anthony Maschek was, we don’t want to hand student radicals an unintended victory by allowing them to dominate the debate – or overshadow the efforts of pro-ROTC students at Columbia.

As for the ROTC opponents, like Lucha member Paco Martin del Campo, who are outraged at being “demonize[d]” and blamed for the actions of a few, perhaps they can put this experience to good use during this week’s final student forum on ROTC. They’ve already learned one valuable lesson to not, as Mr. Martin del Campo puts it, “to be disrespecting people.” No doubt, they will also no longer be making statements lacking any basis in fact about the military’s “predatory” recruiting practices, alleged racism, lack of critical thinking skills, or any of the other scurrilous stereotypes they’ve employed during previous forums.

Cross-posted at The American.

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Who speaks for Columbia students?

Today, the Columbia Spectator stated its support for renewing the university’s ROTC program and urged students to vote “yes” in the university Senate’s ongoing survey.

The editorial is a good read – and a welcome sign that not all Columbia students share the anti-military sentiments of the protesters who heckled Iraq war veteran and freshman Anthony Maschek at a student forum. (Listen to audio of Maschek’s remarks and the student response here.) Indeed, the number of emails from students and faculty submitted to the Senate Taskforce are overwhelmingly in support of ROTC. (I count 48 in favor and a mere 14 against.) Other students and faculty – including the president of the College Democrats – have also spoken up for ROTC.

This isn’t too surprising. Student opposition to ROTC was largely (and supposedly) premised on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and had long been waning. A 2008 student poll – which was framed by faculty and student opponents as a referendum on DADT – found the undergraduate body nearly split. Majorities at the School of General Studies and the engineering school – likely the students with the greatest interest in a military career – voted for ROTC’s return. Earlier that year, the Columbia Spectator editorialized against the ROTC ban even without the repeal of DADT. Likewise, a 2005 taskforce on ROTC deadlocked, 5-5, and none of the members agreed with the statement that ROTC should not return under any circumstances.

In short, there are plenty of good reasons to be optimistic about the outcome of the student vote – and to be cautious about judging all Columbia students by the disgraceful actions of a few. ROTC opponents might hiss and hurl epithets, but they are attracting the wrong kind of attention to themselves – and their university. Before the ROTC survey comes to a close this Thursday, Columbia students should make clear who does – and who does not – speak for them.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Opportunities for ROTC

Over at The AtlanticConor Friedersdorf has linked to my response to President Obama’s recent remarks on the ROTC (provoked by this Andrew Exum post). Reading his summary of our discussion, I’m afraid I came off as unduly pessimistic. While the challenges for an expanded ROTC are great—and will require real leadership from the president, the military, and universities—we have an incredible opportunity right now to restore ROTC to some of the nation’s most prestigious campuses. Indeed, the current moment likely represents the best opportunity advocates for ROTC and better civil-military relations have had in decades.

Top leadership, both civilian and military, are speaking out about the costs of current policy—first, Secretary Gates, then Admiral Mullen, and now President Obama. With the repeal of DADT, Harvard and Yale—studentsfaculty, andadministrators—have expressed their strong support for restoring ROTC. Columbia has a group of committed advocates among its student body, and more than 300 undergraduates who are veterans, which can only help ROTC’s cause when hearings start next month. Even Brown University, with just one student in ROTC, is reconsidering its stance. In short, while there are many factors working against ROTC (perhaps, primarily, plain old inertia), even more are working in its favor.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.

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Columbia University’s ROTC Debate

Here’s a sneak peak at what the ROTC debate at Columbia will look like once the university senate task force meets. Eight Columbia students and professors met with the Columbia Spectator to discuss whether or not Columbia should reinstate its ROTC program.

The good news is that Columbia ROTC has some knowledgeable and persuasive advocates in student Learned Foote and Army cadets Jose Robledo and John McClelland. (Full disclosure: I’ve met all three when they hosted me at a conference at Columbia on the military and civil society.) Their interlocutors were much less impressive. There are serious objections to be made about returning ROTC to campus—these are not them.

At one point, English Professor Bruce Robbins, while allowing the U.S. military is “cool” to welcome openly gay men and women into its ranks, shared his “research” about America’s “immoral wars” (he has a list!) and then asked, “From the point of view of the planet earth, what is it exactly that you are doing when you are part of the U.S. military? Do you want to encourage this?” Meanwhile, graduate student Liya Yu’s main objection seems to be that the ROTC curriculum includes a class called “Strategies of War.”

On the one hand, this kind of silliness is helpful in revealing the anti-military (and anti-American) sentiment that motivates much of the opposition to ROTC. One can only hope that as more ROTC opponents come out into the open, the student body will be so disgusted by such rhetoric they will vote en masse for ROTC to return.

One last item: I was struck by this exchange between Jose and Professor Robbins:

Robledo: When you look at the military as an instrument of policy, you’re looking at Afghanistan. You’re also looking at Haiti. You’re also looking at Louisiana. You’re also looking at humanitarian missions and international missions. There’s a lot more to the military than war making. There’s also the peacekeeping aspect of it. Now it’s up to the civilians who are in charge of this tool [to determine] how it’s implemented overseas. But the tool exists, and the tool is something that [ROTC is] feeding into.

Bruce Robbins: I think you just said two contradictory things. You said the military is a tool of civilian policy, and you said it’s the young lieutenants who are making the policy.

Robledo: I have to correct myself. [I meant] enforcing that policy.

Jose was making an important point (one that Foote also made later in the conversation): that U.S. military policy is made not by the military, but by civilians, namely the president and the Congress. If Robbins and Yu have a beef with the war in Afghanistan, they should be arguing with President Obama—not Columbia’s ROTC.

That said, Jose reversed himself a little too quickly. Military officers—especially young lieutenants in Iraq and Afghanistan—implement civilian policy, but they have wide latitude in doing so. Their ability to understand the situation they’re in—and make the right decision—is crucial. Just read John Dickerson’s extraordinary story about General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, in Slate:

For Mattis, the teaching didn’t stop once the Marines got to the fight. He constantly toured the battlefield to tell stories of Marines who were able to show discretion and cultural sensitivity in moments of high pressure—the Marines who greeted an Iraqi funeral by clearing the street and removing their helmets, or the ones who diffused a street protest by handing out water rather than raising their rifles. He told of a platoon attacked by insurgents in Al-Anbar who, after suffering brutal losses, showed kindness to the civilians caught in the crossfire. “They had just finished scraping up their buddies off the deck but showed the people respect,” he says. “Those were Marines the enemy didn’t succeed in turning into racists who hated everyone.” In other words, Mattis called on his troops to accept more immediate risks—to not shoot, to remove helmets—in order to plant seeds for future peace.

Later, General Mattis explained that none of the new technologies and weapons systems “would have helped me in the last three years [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. But I could have used cultural training [and] language training. I could have used more products from American universities [who] understood the world does not revolve around America and [who] embrace coalitions and allies for all of the strengths that they bring us.”

Whether Columbia restores ROTC or not will have no influence on President Obama’s decision-making about Afghanistan—as Professor Robbins and his supporters concede. However, it will affect the ability of the American military to find and recruit the kinds of officers General Mattis needs—the kind who understand when to stand down and when to fight.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.

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Cheap talk?

Over at CNAS, Andrew Exum has a somewhat different take on President Obama’s ROTC shout-out in the State of the Union speech. He writes:

there is one huge problem with this. It’s easy to demonize the “elite” universities for not having more ROTC programs, but the reality is that the U.S. military has been the one most responsible for divesting from ROTC programs in the northeastern United States. It’s hardly the fault of Columbia University that the U.S. Army has only two ROTC programs to serve the eight million residents and 605,000 university students of New York City. And it’s not the University of Chicago’s fault that the entire city of Chicago has one ROTC program while the state of Alabama has ten. The U.S. military made a conscious decision to cut costs by recruiting and training officers where people were more likely to volunteer.

Andrew is right: It takes two to tango. The military has drawn down its ROTC programs in the Northeast and urban areas largely as a cost-cutting measure, and for that, its civilian leadership shares just as much, if not moreresponsibility. If President Obama (and Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen) is serious about restoring ROTC’s geographic and cultural balance, he will have to be willing to advocate for — and authorize — the necessary resources. Otherwise, President Obama’s support will be nothing more than cheap talk.

The military will have to be ready to make a number of cultural adjustments, as well. Within its ranks, there are some who feel considerable bitterness (some of it justifiedsome not) toward elite schools and the largely “blue” enclaves in which they are situated; others whose otherwise healthy anti-elitism has caused them to discount the benefits of expanding ROTC’s reach, and finally, those who are ambivalent about the value of a liberal arts education to the officer corps. The resulting policy has been to limit ROTC scholarships for students at elite schools, conserving costs but also ensuring limited interest among a student group military leadership considers “short-timers” and whose strengths (“sensitivity, abundant intelligence, and creativity”) have been seen as inimical or irrelevant to junior officer development. (All this is recounted in depressing detail in the Army Cadet Command history.)

Both sides — the military and the university — have reason to be wary of one another, but as President Obama said, it’s time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. Elite schools like Harvard and Columbia were hardly bit players in creating the current atmosphere of distrust, and so they too have a responsibility to help heal the rift and meet the military halfway. Even if the result is not a new ROTC detachment on campus, there is a lot colleges can do to support their cadets, often at little trouble to themselves. Columbia, for instance, could ease one of the biggest burdens on NYC cadets — their commute — by simply providing them with training space on campus.

The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell represents an enormous opportunity to repair the breach between the university and the military. However, there is a real danger that momentum will be lost, and the status quo will prevail. Old habits die hard, after all. As the commander-in-chief and the product of two Ivy League schools, President Obama is perfectly poised to ensure this does not happen. He can keep the issue in the news cycle, and more importantly, empower those within both the military and the university who want real change.

Cross-posted at the Weekly Standard.

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Yale, Stanford, Columbia: This means you!

I generally agree it’s unseemly how much the State of the Union now resembles a political pep rally. However, there’s one line in the president’s speech tonight that I will jump off my sofa to applaud: President Obama is reaffirming his support for ROTC and calling on colleges to return the program to their campuses. The excerpt:

Tonight, let us speak with one voice in reaffirming that our nation is united in support of our troops and their families. Let us serve them as well as they have served us – by giving them the equipment they need; by providing them with the care and benefits they have earned; and by enlisting our veterans in the great task of building our own nation.

Our troops come from every corner of this country – they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.

Here’s hoping ColumbiaYaleStanford, and all the rest are listening tonight.

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Re-connecting the Army to society

Some good advice for the new Army chief of staff from Lt. Gen. David Barno (U.S. Army, ret.):

Re-connect the Army to Society. ROTC to Ivy Leagues. Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Post-deployment speaking tours for company commanders. Visits to University presidents and faculty.  East Coast/West Coast speaking engagements and editorial boards for (smart) Army generals.  Jon Stewart.  Just who is this Army that the nation has had out there at the edge of the universe fighting for the last ten years? Who knew? And inside the force — regaining a sense of humility that can disappear when too many view military service as a calling for “the best of the best” and often increasingly view the rest of their countrymen with disdain. Today’s Army — including its leadership — lives in a bubble separate from society.  Not only does it reside in remote fortresses — the world’s most exclusive gated communities– but in a world apart from the cultural, intellectual and even geographic spheres that define the kaleidoscopic United States.  This splendid military isolation — set in the midst of a largely adoring nation — risks fostering a closed culture of superiority and aloofness.  This must change if the Army is to remain in, of, and with the ever-diverse peoples of the United States.

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