Illustrative image for How Should the Public Learn

How Should the Public Learn?

Reconstructing Common Purpose and Civic Innovation for a Democracy in Crisis

Principal Investigators: Bruce Jennings, Gregory Kaebnick, Mildred Solomon

Co-Investigators: Michael Gusmano, Carolyn P. Neuhaus

Funder: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Democracy requires the capacity to receive information through media and from experts and to use that information to support collective deliberation. Various forces have put this process under strain. Trust in all forms of expertise–including science–has eroded in recent years. This Hastings Center project aimed at learning how to improve civic and public understanding of complex issues in ways suited to the current era. It sought, that is, to improve civic learning processes—public mechanisms for gathering information, deliberating, and building consensus.

Recreating the conditions for civic learning requires developing inclusive, trustworthy ways of imparting information and fostering public deliberation both through the media and through civic innovations at the community level. The project focused on building the capacity for effective public deliberation in the context of a number of biomedical and scientific policy controversies, such as community disputes about vaccination, environmental management, and health care for the aging. These issues are divisive but can also be highly instructive in terms of their implications for civic learning.

Using these cases to challenge and stimulate analysis, the project generated an understanding of civic learning and a forward-looking agenda for innovations. We communicated this analysis—amounting to a conceptual map for the reform of civic learning—to leaders in science policy, scholars of civic learning, and community leaders engaged in the enhancement of civic learning. We reached these three distinct audiences through a suite of publications and resources, including:

Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose, a special report in the Hastings Center Report, January-February 2021

A two-page summary of the major recommendations in the report:

Other articles, essays, and chapters made possible by the grant: 

Bruce Jennings, “Solidarity and the Common Good: Social Epidemiology and Relational Ethics in Public Health,” in Steven S. Coughlin and Angus Dawson, eds. Ethics and Epidemiology, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming. 

Bruce Jennings, “Democracy and Justice in Climate Change Adaptation,” in D. Brown, K. Gwiazdon, and L. Westra eds., Handbook on Applied Climate Ethics, New York: Routledge Press, forthcoming. 

G.E. Kaebnick, “Science Doesn’t Work That Way,” Boston Review, April 30, 2021, Science Doesn’t Work That Way | Boston Review 

Bruce Jennings, “The Covids of Our Climate,” Minding Nature, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2021): 4-13. Accessible at: 

Bruce Jennings, “Symbiotic Time,” Minding Nature, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 2020): 5-13. Accessible at: 

Bruce Jennings, “Beyond the Covid Crisis—A New Social Contract with Public Health,” Hastings Center Bioethics Forum, May 19, 2020. Accessible at: 

Bruce Jennings, “The Ends and Means of Solidarity,” American Journal of Bioethics, Vol. 20, No. 5 (May 2020): 64-66. 

G.E. Kaebnick, “Anthony Fauci Shows Us the Right Way to Be an Expert,” Scientific American blog, March 26, 2020, 

Bruce Jennings, “Between Hubris and Humility,” Minding Nature, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter 2020), 4-12. Accessible at: 

G.E. Kaebnick and M.K. Gusmano, “Forget about ‘Because Science’: Persuading People to Vaccinate their Children Requires Engaging with Them about Their Values,” Slate, April 15, 2019, 

Bruce Jennings, “The Greening of Green,” Minding Nature, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Spring 2019), 4-9. Accessible at:

Bruce Jennings, “Between Gaia and Demos,” Minding Nature 12, no. 3 (2019),

Bruce Jennings, “Stymied, We Stew,” Minding Nature 12, no. 1 (2019),

Lectures, presentations, and webinars: 

M.K. Gusmano and V.G. Rodwin, “Covid-19 and Global Cities: New York City (NYC) London, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow,” at BRICS et économies émeregentes, L’Ecole Des Hautes Etudes en Social Sciences, Paris, France (virtually), March 17, 2021. 

State of American Democracy Project/Democracy Unchained Conversations, Episode 11: “Our Dual Citizenship: Democracy and Nature,” featuring B. Jennings with Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, and Max Stier, president of Partnership for Public Service; aired January 14, 2021, and archived at