Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?
A republic, if you can keep it.
Exchange between Elizabeth Powel and Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia 1787
The PostPandemic Curriculum Project arises out of two assumptions:
There are a few dozen core concepts that are most relevant to making sense of the majority of our serious public policy challenges (and also many important personal decisions), and
Our democracies are eroding in part because most citizens (even the highly educated) are unfamiliar with many of these concepts.
This lack of familiarity makes it difficult for citizens to participate meaningfully in discussions of public policy and increases their distrust of experts outside their specialty who speak in terms that are foreign to them. In turn, this disconnect coarsens the tone of political and social interactions. Our democracy will be more resilient, and our public policies more effective, if the vast majority of citizens were comfortable with these core concepts and the associated language.
The initial goal of the PostPandemic Curriculum Project is to start the broad discussion needed to identify these core concepts.
The ultimate goal is to spread a basic familiarity with these core concepts widely, both in schools and throughout the adult population.
The working assumption of our democracies is that no particular preparation for citizenship is needed, that the proverbial “Jeffersonian” gentleman farmer’s independent thinking and common sense is good enough. The options available to governments at the founding of our democracies were vastly fewer than today, as were the severity of the consequences of poor decisions. In the simpler less-integrated slower-paced world of the 1800’s, with its limited technological capabilities, basic literacy and arithmetic skills were probably enough for an effectively engaged citizenry.
But as the challenges, options, and technologies have expanded in number, consequence, and complexity, the language (and underlying concepts) needed to meaningfully engage in the discussions has dramatically changed. On any given issue only a small number of people understand the details, and they usually speak in terms that few others understand. Many of the concepts involved are counter-intuitive. This resulting concept-gap means that significant learning needs to take place before a productive discussion can take place – often difficult learning that takes considerable effort and time.
Most people (including politicians, journalists, and experts in other areas) become bored or intimidated, and don’t do the work needed to understand what is being said by the experts. Worse still, many people turn against the experts for making them feel stupid.
This combination of poor communication and lack of understanding fosters ill-will that opens the door to the misinformation and hostile partisanship that is infecting much of our important policy discussions. This is perfect compost for growing an autocracy.
For example, our SARS-CoV-2 / CoVid-19 response has been hampered by a wide-spread lack of familiarity with the basic concepts (and language) related to feedback/recursion, genetics, simulations, and how our immune systems work. Climate change discussions are stymied, in part, by an absence of understanding of feedback/recursion, thermodynamics, molecular absorption of radiation, and simulations. Inter-group hate (the source of untold suffering) is increased by a lack of concepts related to cognitive biases, brain function, genetics, population statistics, comparative religions/cultures/history, and the understanding that there is no reason to assign a special superior status to your own group.
It has been almost two centuries since any one person was able to master the broad scope of human knowledge (Franklin, Goethe and Humboldt were among the last of the true polymaths). Over the past century no-one has been able to keep up with the hyperbolic expansion of what we, collectively, know. The best any of us can do is to touch the surface of a subject outside of our narrow areas of specialization.
But our schools, whose mandate was set in the 1800’s, continue to focus on basic skills and on training specialists. We’ve never asked them to change this mandate to include giving every graduate the set of understandings that allow for meaningful productive engagement in discussing pressing public policy challenges. It is time that we change that mandate.
The aim of the PostPandemic Curriculum Project is to start a process of correcting this dangerous situation.