by Courtney Brouwer, Assistant Director of Civic Learning
"Every museum, whatever its mission statement may be, is a cradle of democracy" – Eric Liu, author, civic entrepreneur and founder of Citizen University
Just recently, I had the privilege of organizing a luncheon at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference that was co-sponsored by the McCormick Foundation. Captivating keynote speaker Eric Liu, who once served as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and now spearheads the Seattle-based Citizen University, underscored the crucial role that museums play in nurturing democracy and promoting what he calls the art of powerful citizenship. He called on an audience of museum professionals to acknowledge their institutions—whether they interpret collections of history, science, art, or animals—as cradles of democracy that foster meaningful participation in public life.
Eric noted that documentation status is entirely extraneous to his conception of citizenship, a regrettably politicized and therefore polarizing term. Instead, in its most ideal form, the word evokes for him a sense of commitment to our communities, where the spirit of fellowship thrives. He posits that museums nurture this spirit by illuminating the interconnectivity of our lives and commonality of our concerns.
Using metaphor to powerful effect, Eric likened museums to places of worship. Just as cathedrals offer refuge for reflection and communing with something greater than ourselves, so, too, do museums offer sanctuary from the pressures and mundane concerns of everyday life. They remind us that we are connected across generations, inheritors of the past and stewards of the future.
I encourage you to watch Eric’s remarks and join the dialogue we began that day. What do you think museums should be doing—or doing better—to realize their potential as cradles of democracy?
Where do you get your daily dose of news? Is it on your morning drive into work, perhaps reading the paper just minutes after it’s thrown onto your porch, or would it be on your smart phone or tablet? Many of us feel comfortable getting updated about the world around us through blogs, newsletters or social media. But depending on where you get your news, you might not be building your own news literacy strength.
A growing sector of the U.S. population does not distinguish between professional journalists, information spinners and citizen voices. Technological advancements in concert with the 24/7 news cycle serve to further exacerbate this challenging situation. This is where having a personal commitment to becoming news literate is critically important.
News literacy is defined as the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and information sources. It enables people to become smarter consumers and creators of fact-based information. It helps in the development of informed perspectives and the navigational skills to become effective community citizens in a digitally-connected society.
Research coordinated by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s Journalism Program shows that news literacy programs provide:
A frame of reference to distinguish fact from fiction, opinion or propaganda.
An understanding of the First Amendment, the role of a free, independent media and the importance of journalistic values.
A curiosity to seek information and better understand communities, country and international affairs.
Help in navigating the myriad sources of digital information in a more skeptical and informed manner.
A foundation for exercising civility, respect and care in the exchange of information.
These priorities are especially important to youth as they seek to collect, analyze, and produce credible information. Thus, to be news literate is to build knowledge, think critically, act civilly and participate in the democratic process.
Among the top goals for news literacy programs are to educate and energize citizens—especially students—about the value of news and assist them in developing a framework for assessing information. They help citizens increase their ability to find critical information and develop a sense of ethics as digital citizens and media makers. It is vital to instill these belief in our youth, in new Americans, and those in under-served populations with the ultimate goal of more engaged, informed communities.
News literacy programs, like the McCormick Foundation’s Why News Matters project, also emphasize the importance of news and information, the value of reliable sources, and appreciation of First Amendment freedoms. The organization expects to invest as much as $6 million in the initiative through 2015. The investment builds on the strong news literacy youth and teacher training programs that have been the core of the Foundation’s journalism funding since 2009.
Most of us will not find ourselves in a news literacy program, but we can still embrace the responsibility we have to think more critically and evaluate the information we hear, we see and we share. Certainly media organizations, high schools, universities, two-year colleges, community organizations, and libraries all have a role to play but so do each of us.