From Civic Engagement to Civic Courage—Science Education's Next Chapter

Eliza Jane Reilly
National Center for Science and Civic Engagement
Eliza Jane Reilly, Executive Director, National Center for Science and Civic Engagement

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published Jun 8, 2023 3:16pm

It is hard to escape the fact that the relationship of evidence-based or scientific thinking to civic life in a democracy--which had been acknowledged by the science advocacy community for over a century--has attained a new urgency in the age of fake news and alternative facts. Recently a colleague remarked that the project I helped found and now lead, Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) "was ahead of its time," and I've been reflecting on that idea. Historians love to quote the philosopher Kierkegaard who observed, "we live forward, but understand backward." And I've spent a lot of time this year trying to "understand backward" the broader cultural and educational context that produced SENCER to consider whether SENCER was indeed "ahead," or more accurately an embodiment of the best thinking available in its own time.[1]  I'm especially concerned with considering what elements of our collective past can support a future of civically and socially-engaged learning in science, despite a dramatically altered academic landscape. This changed landscape includes the precarity of faculty status and autonomy, the contraction of institutional finances, unprecedented student needs and expectations, and frankly, the decline of administrative leadership in the face of political pressure, which has provided much less space for creativity and academic innovation.

What became clear to me in hindsight was that while the specific goal of improving STEM education was certainly the public rationale for SENCER, and the key to the substantial investment by NSF and a range of private foundations, the foundational idea was much bigger and older--that science education was not an end, but a means to building civic understanding and capacity in learners for the benefit of all. As the founding PI David Burns put it in one of the earliest framings —SENCER's approach to science learning was about building "knowledge to make our democracy."[2]  In other words, SENCER deliberately collapsed the distinction, which is still often invoked, between science education and civic education.

The idea that there is an inextricable connection between scientific thinking and democracy has deep roots in US history.  It was "baked in" to the founding as Thomas Jefferson acknowledged in the last letter he wrote, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration.  In it, he reflected on the new form of governance, one that had replaced the authority of hereditary and minority rule, and its debt to science.

 "The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them...these are grounds of hope for others." [3]

Of course, we know that despite his lofty words, Jefferson refused to take the saddles off the backs of his own human property, including his own blood relations—becoming one more example in a long list of how our most sacred American ideals are repeatedly contradicted and undermined by American history and practice. But his words clearly imply that science supported the purposeful dismantling of unjust hierarchies and exclusions, and that the creation of this "ground of hope," was the real goal of the new political order-- not economic gain, upward mobility, and the building of personal wealth, which some mistakenly regard as the true aim of American democracy.

The scientific community has long accepted the idea that the congruence between democracy and scientific or evidence-based thinking is not simply a moral preference but quite literally the epistemological bedrock of modernity and human progress.  As the AAAS proposed in 1990 "Human survival and the quality of life depend on liberally educated citizens who are able to make informed assessments of the opportunities and risks inherent in the scientific enterprise.[4]  Going further back to the 1940's Robert Merton asserted the close confluence and interdependence between the norms and ideals of scientific practice and the norms of democracy, as both are committed to the idea that the validity of claims must be "independent of the sociopolitical status/personal attributes of its participants." In other words, evidence must be evaluated on its own terms and not according to the status of the claimant.[5]

And even long before that, John Dewey, perhaps our greatest theorist of democracy and education, went even further with his claims for scientific thinking in his 1909 inaugural address as the first chair of the new Education Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

"science is the only method of thinking that has proved fruitful in any subject" and fosters "knowledge of the ways by which anything is entitled to be knowledge instead of being mere opinion, or guess work, or dogma."[6]

While our civic life is facing a range of existential threats, from climate change, infectious disease, environmental hazards, food insecurity, and mass migration, to name just a few, separating actual knowledge from opinion, guesswork or dogma may be the single great civic challenge that connects all the others.  Democracy around the globe—far from perfect in the best of times—is now under full-scale assault, and as Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism pointed out the success of dictatorships depends not on those who were committed to an ideology, but rather on "people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction...and the distinction between true and longer exist."[7]

In the US, this decline is a self-inflicted wound.  Political gamesmanship, corruption, voter repression, unprecedented concentration of wealth leading to income inequality, the lack of accountability, and the stunning hypocrisy of our representatives and most privileged citizens, have all done incalculable damage. Even before the assault on the capital, democracy watchdog groups were noting that the US has sunk to a new low in rankings of world democracies, dropping 11 points in a decade, and is now ranked below Argentina and Mongolia. The Economist Intelligence Unit has now downgraded the US from full democracy to flawed democracy. [8] As the journalist Sam Adler Bell observed:

"Can those who have experienced democracy only as disappointment, as thwarted hopes, venality, and sloth, be expected to risk anything to save it?"[9]

Opinion and dogma masquerading as fact are the building blocks of inequality, hierarchy, and exclusion—the powerful forces that strive to institutionalize in law a social order where some are born, as Jefferson put it, with "saddles on their backs" and a favored few are booted and spurred, ready to ride them."   Dr. King acknowledged in 1967 that many Americans want a nation that is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship for black Americans. [10]We can see more clearly now that the goal for many is to extend the rule of that dictatorship far beyond race, to a full spectrum of differences, including gender, ethnicity, ability, religion, political views –literally  majority of Americans whose rights are endangered or already explicitly revoked, rolled back, and eliminated, along with the legal and policy remediations aimed at protecting them.

So where does SENCER fit into this picture?  Much as it always has, by helping learners learn science in a meaningful and relevant civic framework–which in the US should mean a democratic– frame.  And we believe they learn best when exploring the contexts and problems most relevant to them and their communities.   At the very least SENCER tries to show students that their knowledge matters, but really only matters, if we hold on to our democracy.  What I can say from 23 years of observation is that SENCER practitioners have been raising the bar in their teaching, from "civic engagement" to a much tougher-minded approach—from civic engagement to civic agency.  As James Baldwin said, "not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."[11] Thankfully many STEM educators are boldly facing, and using their full toolbox of interdisciplinary inquiry to explore, some of our toughest and most controversial civic problems, especially those that reinforce exclusion, inequity, oppression, and disempowerment--- from reproductive rights, to redlining, to fake news, racism, criminal justice and more.

These educators are working with their students to investigate the scientific, technical, and quantitative skills and knowledge they need to both understand and to act on the human practices that produce and exacerbate our crises, but more importantly, they are bluntly facing the disparate impacts those crises have on the less powerful, the disenfranchised, the marginal. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral," and so many faculty in the SENCER community are not "washing their hands." [12]

  I'll end with words from a very recent speech by Henry Giroux, a founding theorist of critical pedagogy, that struck me as a very good summary of what can be the next chapter in science education, one that is grounded in liberatory foundations of science itself:

"Educators should attempt to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, values, and the civic courage that enable them to struggle to make desolation & cynicism unconvincing, and hope practical....they need to see education not as something that molds them, but as something that energizes them, as something that they can use as a tool in which they can understand a world so that they can learn how not to be governed, but how to govern."[13]


[1] Burns, Wm. D. (2010). SENCER in Theory and Practice. In Science Education and Civic Engagement: The SENCER Approach (Vol. 1037, pp. 1–23). American Chemical Society.

[2] Burns, W. D. (2002). Knowledge To Make Our Democracy. Liberal Education88(4), 20–27; Burns, Wm. D. (2010).

[3] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman- Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents | Exhibitions - Library of Congress . (1995, July 4). [Web page].

[4] The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action. (1990). American Association for the Advancement of Science Books, P.

[5] Merton, Robert, "Science and Technology in a Democratic Order," Journal of Legal and Political Sociology I (1942): 115-26; later published as "Science and Democratic Social Structure," in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure."

[6] Dewey, J. (1910). Science as Subject-Matter and as Method. Science31(787), 121–127.

[7] Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism, P.385. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

[8] The world's most, and least, democratic countries in 2022. (n.d.). The Economist. Retrieved June 2, 2023, from

[9] Adler-Bell, S. (2022, July 11). Is the January 6 Committee Really Saving Democracy? Intelligencer.

[10] King, Martin Luther, America's chief moral dilemma. (n.d.). KPFA; American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress). Retrieved June 2, 2023, from

[11] AS MUCH TRUTH AS ONE CAN BEAR; To Speak Out About the World as It Is, Says James Baldwin, Is the Writer's Job As Much of the Truth as One Can Bear—The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2023, from

[12] Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition, p.187. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

[13] Henry Giroux—Critical Pedagogy in a Time of Fascist Tyranny | Human Restoration Project | Podcast. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2023, from  Here Giroux does not cite, but he is paraphrasing a famous line from the British activist, literary critic, and cultural theorist Raymond Williams: "It is then in making hope practical, rather than despair convincing, that we must resume and change and extend our campaigns." —  "The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament" (1980)


Suggested Citation:  

Reilly, E. J. (April 26, 2023). From Civic Engagement to Civic Courage—Science Education's Next Chapter. [Blog post]. Retrieved from


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