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Historian's book analyzes informed citizenry (Released: 2/21/96)

by Luis Mocete, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- As Americans prepare to vote in the 1996 presidential election, Richard Brown, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, examines how the idea of an informed citizenry developed in American history.

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, Brown said.

He traces this development from the 17th to 19th centuries and assesses its continuing influence and changing meaning in his latest book, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870.

Although the concept of an informed citizenry had some prior history in Europe, the full articulation of the ideal relationship between citizenship and knowledge came during the era of the American Revolution.

This concept was declared during the birth of our nation by such notables as John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he said.

The founding fathers believed that the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press, religion, speech and assembly would foster an informed citizenry.

According to Brown, many of the fundamental institutions of American democracy and society, including political parties, public education, the media and even the postal system, have enjoyed wide government support because they have been identified as vital for the creation and maintenance of an informed public.

Because of this, educational institutions continue to support the popular presumption that the public should be informed before heading to the voting booth to select officials and policies. This is especially evident today, when debates over education reform and the need to be competitive in a technologically advanced, global economy are rooted in the idea that education is crucial to the nation s future, he said.

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, Brown added.

However, as citizenship broadened over time to include women, African-Americans, the poor and immigrants, the definition, meaning, and purpose of being informed also changed, he said.

Brown follows the change by showing how political and cultural movements, combined with entrepreneurial initiatives and the rise of consumerism, shape this transformation. The result, he said, has been a movement away from civic knowledge among many of today s voters.

Brown, whose book is being published by The University of North Carolina Press, has been at UConn since 1971.

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