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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 aims at learning how to improve civic and public understanding of complex issues in ways suited to the current era. It seeks, 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 focuses 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 will generate an understanding of civic learning and a forward-looking agenda for innovations. We will communicate 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 will reach these three distinct audiences through a suite of publications and resources, including an open-access compendium of scholarly essays, a short book aimed at a broad audience, and online content.