Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Informed Citizen: Elect To Be Informed

“Whenever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.”

Thomas Jefferson

With the campaign season becoming more intense with the presidential election just weeks away, many people surely have become more interested and aware of the ‘issues’ as presented in the news media. Many have become more anxious about their own pressing needs and who they see as the best candidate to address them and some also become more patriotic, dutifully weighing who they see would lead the country in the best direction of upholding the American dream, values and status in the world. We constantly hear the candidates, their surrogates and political pundits intoning the significance and the importance of the electorate's choice; such is the atmosphere of a presidential election: the civic interest and awareness of the citizenry peaks as people tune into the myriad news and information channels, attend discussions, lectures and debate among themselves.

And all this brings focus upon a central component of any democracy: an informed citizenry.

The concept of the importance and essentiality of informed citizens with respect to the sustainability of the State has been with us since the lead up to the revolution: Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Madison are all noted for avowing and championing this notion. University of Connecticut Professor Richard D. Brown, in his book, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America 1650-1870, gives a good account of the virtue and development of this idea as it has woven its way through American politics and society. In his introduction Brown notes that:

“when American democracy is assessed in a global context and its huge size and exceptional heterogeneity are figured in, it is widely agreed that the idea of an informed citizenry has been a crucial ingredient in United States’ success.”

Brown does not hesitate to caution however that...

“The idea of an informed citizenry has been so familiar since the late nineteenth century, and so interwoven with the rhetoric of democracy and education, that we have been tempted to take it for granted.”

In the goal of maintaining an informed citizenry, libraries have and do play a key role. An acclaimed and well-known book to librarians in this regard (and arguably a must-read for any serious librarian and information professional) is Arthur Hafner’s collection of essays in Democracy and the Public Library: Essays on Fundamental Issues. The essays in this book lay out clear historical, theoretical and practical perspectives on the role libraries play in preserving the free or marketplace of ideas which is the cornerstone of any democracy.

In her paper the Civic Mission of School Libraries former ALA (American Library Association) president Nancy Kranich describes and promotes the myriad ways that school libraries fulfill their role in the civic engagement and literacy movement and contends:

“If libraries are to fulfill their civic mission in the information age, they must find active ways to engage citizens in order to encourage their involvement in democratic discourse and community renewal.”

In his book Civic Literacy: How informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, Henry Milner examines civic literacy in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand and describes civic literacy as:

"both an attribute of the individual and an aggregate indicator allowing for the comparison of societies according to the proportion of civically literate individuals, that is, possessing the knowledge required for effective political choice"..."a country’s level of civic literacy is an indicator of the efficacy of its political knowledge-enhancing institutions."

From its "Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions: What americans Know 1989-2007," a survey of telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a nationwide sample of 1,502 adults, 18 years of age or older, from February 1-13, 2007 and published in April 2007, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in its summary reported:

"On average, today's citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago."

But also noting however that:

"...despite the fact that education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly."

Perhaps this can be collaborated with the findings of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute study of civic literacy, "Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Our Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions," where in the fall of 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP), conducted a survey of some 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. Students were given 60 multiple-choice questions to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: America’s history, government, international relations, and market economy (go ahead reader... take the quiz). The study's major findings were:

Finding 1: College Seniors Failed a Basic Test on America’s History and Institutions.

Finding 2: Colleges Stall Student Learning about America.

Finding 3: America’s Most Prestigious Universities Performed the Worst.

Finding 4: Inadequate College Curriculum Contributes to Failure.

Finding 5: Greater Learning about America Goes Hand-in-Hand with More Active Citizenship.

While this portrays a disappointing picture of civic literacy among college students, the current campaign environment seems to present a vastly different picture in relation college students' involvement in the political process, given the reportedly large numbers of college student registrations and attendance of college students at political rallies.

Nonetheless, perhaps outside of the regular course curriculum, university libraries like their K-12 and public library counterparts can with greater frequency hold more civic literacy events, programs and exhibitions to better educate students.

Bearing all this in mind and how information comes at our way via the omnipresent information channels and devices we now have at our disposal it should be stated that being an informed citizen does not necessarily mean that one has to know everything but at least of possessing an attitude of willingness to be engaged and interested in the issues that affect one’s community and country. And surely one medium cabable of presenting you with information and to facilitate you to become more civically engaged is your local library.

Here are some other library and civic literacy links worth visiting.

12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country from American Libraries Magazine

NACE- National Alliance for Civic Education

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