Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

January 20, 2021

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Creative Thinking About ‘Civic Education’ Needs a Big Tent

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Your ideas on how higher ed can help repair American democracy.

Last week I dug into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century” and asked how you thought higher ed could contribute. This week I’ll share some of the comments and resources you sent me.

Comments first, and for starters, the importance of science education as civic education. In the last newsletter, I quoted one of the co-chairs of the report, Danielle Allen, noting the paucity of federal spending on civic education compared with STEM in elementary and secondary schools. Several folks from the sciences found fault in that comparison, notably Jay Labov, a 23-year veteran of the science-education program at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and before that, a professor of biology at Colby College.

“I would advise that we not only look at the amount spent on various subjects but how those funds are spent,” Labov wrote to me. “In the same ways that we have allowed civics education to wither,” he said, educators haven’t done enough to teach students about the scientific process, nature, and the “limits of science and technology.”

Teaching STEM with greater context, he said, is also a way to instill important principles needed for civic engagement.

The experience of this pandemic poses a perfect example, he said. How much instructional time has been spent on viral structures and transmissions, Labov asked, rather than teaching students to “use information about the virus to help understand public-policy recommendations about mask wearing, making decisions about who should be vaccinated first, and whether there should be civil penalties for deliberately staging or attending events that have the potential to be superspreaders?”

Labov also pointed to a decades-old organization, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, which promotes just this sort of approach by colleges, as well as government agencies, community organizations, and other groups.

Other folks offered additional resources. One was tied to the report’s call for a new, more-inclusive national narrative. John Miller, a former reporter at The Wall Street Journal, wrote in about a project he’s been working on since the 2016 election, a PBS documentary called Moundsville that debuted last year. It’s the story of the boom, bust, and gradual resurgence of a West Virginia town that was reliant on coal and steel jobs. The film “offers a template for a new shared narrative about industrial America — so-called Trump country,” Miller said, “without any mention at all of national politics.” The companion blog further explores such themes as news deserts and racism, which also happen to be some of what’s fracturing American democracy. The film has been screened by campuses in the region, and Miller is eager to share it more broadly.

People from Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders responded, too, promoting a book released on Tuesday. It’s relevance? Higher ed’s responsibility “to develop leaders who serve in ethical and moral ways for all members of our democracy,” a spokesman said. I haven’t had a chance yet to look at the book, Leadership Reckoning: Can Higher Education Develop the Leaders We Need? But if it manages to live up to its blurb — that it “takes to task American colleges and universities for their haphazard, incoherent, evidence-free approaches to developing students as leaders and offers a principle-driven, outcome-oriented blueprint for how effective leader development can occur” — it could be worth checking out.

Books to help us understand the current reality.

It’s been a while since I’ve passed along book recommendations. Now I have two to share.

Free Time, by Julie Rose, was suggested to me by Allen, the report co-chair and a professor of government at Harvard University. She called it “a beautiful book” and mentioned it right after I said I appreciated the report’s recognition of how difficult it is for ordinary people to get involved in civic life because they’re so busy with work and family obligations. (That’s something that’s been worrying me for years.) In Free Time, Rose, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, argues that equitable economic policy needs to take into account that everyone, not just the wealthy, deserves time for their chosen pursuits.

The second book has a grimmer theme, but sadly, it fits the times. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, by Nancy K. MacLean, was suggested by Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College and a co-host of The Chronicle’s virtual-event series on race, class, and higher education. The book “details the normalizing of the Ku Klux Klan, and by extension, white supremacists,” Sorrell wrote on Twitter last weekend. “Think of the Klan as less outliers of society and more of a respected and supported part of certain communities — filled with mayors, bankers, etc.” MacLean is a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

As we continue to learn about the business owners, public officials, and other community leaders who were part of the mob that invaded the Capitol on January 6, I can see why Sorrell thought of this book. As he said, it “helps provide context for so much of what we are dealing with today.”

Join me next Tuesday for a live event: “Connecting with the Cutting Edge Economy.”

How can colleges keep innovating to meet the needs of an evolving economy, particularly in the wake of Covid-19? What are community and technical colleges in particular doing to prepare for the future? Those are some of the questions our panel of college leaders will tackle next Tuesday, January 26, at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Our guests include: Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College: Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech Community College; and Quentin Ashley Wright, president of Lone Star College-Houston North. We’ll be talking about how institutions are rethinking their programs and what emerging technologies mean for community-college curricula. Sign up here to participate live or watch later on demand.

A final note.

This Inauguration Day will be very different from any I've ever seen: The tens of thousands of National Guard troops on patrol throughout my hometown and the tall iron fencing blocking off the Mall and its national monuments from any public gatherings are just two emblematic signs. Thankfully, the event will still have some of the traditional pageantry and pomp, including marching bands from the University of Delaware and Howard University, the alma maters of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

And yes, despite the fences surrounding it, even the Mall, barren of people, will be transformed into an important symbol (and judging by the rehearsal pics I spotted on Monday night, a pretty cool-looking one at that). In a dark time for our nation, it will be a showcase of light and American unity. Powerful symbols — and necessary ambitions for the future of our democracy.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.