The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870

The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870

The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870

The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870

Synopsis

Thomas Jefferson's conviction that the health of the nation's democracy would depend on the existence of an informed citizenry has been a cornerstone of our political culture since the inception of the American republic. Even today's debates over education reform and the need to be competitive in a technologically advanced, global economy are rooted in the idea that the education of rising generations is crucial to the nation's future. In this book, Richard Brown traces the development of the ideal of an informed citizenry in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries and assesses its continuing influence and changing meaning.

Excerpt

For at least two centuries, Americans have believed in the idea that citizens should be informed in order to be able to exercise their civic responsibilities wisely. At the birth of the republic, the necessity of an informed citizenry was proclaimed loudly and often by such notables as Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, in addition to a host of less well known leaders. Indeed, one of the legacies of the early republic was an ideology of an informed citizenry that would become a central theme in American public life, encouraging a wide array of voluntary associations such as political parties as well as promoting the printing industry, the post office, and the development of public education from primary schools through technical colleges and universities. Among Jefferson's most prized and enduring historical contributions was state-supported public education in Virginia, especially the university; Abraham Lincoln, who as a lad had trudged barefoot to a frontier schoolhouse, sponsored and signed the 1862 law that gave federal lands to the states to endow agricultural and technical colleges. By the Civil War era, the idea of an informed citizenry had grown into an article of national faith.

Moreover, the ideology of an informed citizenry, which continues to sustain the principle of free speech and press, has been a cornerstone of democratic politics. in our own time, a whole panoply of educational institutions --from Head Start classes to graduate schools--supports the popular presumption that the citizenry is informed sufficiently to choose public officials and policies at the ballot box. Educational institutions are thought to provide the necessary basic skills and knowledge, while a free press and political campaigns supply the specific information consumers require to make particular decisions. No one supposes that this system guarantees that the citizenry is fully informed, but 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 the United States' success.

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. From the era of John Dewey and the Progressives, Americans have debated segregation and . . .

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