Government Information: Accessing and
Thinking Critically About It
James Madison believed correctly that:
"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." 1
The U.S. government publishes large amounts of information and citizens have tools necessary for acquiring it. However, most people do not have the skills required to do so. They lack an awareness of how government works and how they could benefit from government information. The following cartoon exaggerates this point.
Source: New York Times, May 5, 2008, "Week in Review," p. 2
Civics data collected by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that in 2006 34% of 12th graders scored below a basic level.2 A second study of by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) National Civic Literacy Board, Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions, is interesting. Fourteen thousand college freshmen and seniors at 50 schools responded to a multiple choice test covering American history and government, the U.S. in world affairs, and economics. Mean scores among freshman were 51.7%, an F grade. Seniors did not do much better. Their mean score was 53.2%. Harvard students had the highest mean score and that was only 69%, a D grade.3 ISI also found that "…a student's overall civic knowledge had no relationship to his likelihood to vote. What mattered was how much the student’s civic knowledge increased during college." 4
The University at Buffalo's strategic strength in civic engagement addresses this. UB Sociology Professor, Robert Granfield, defined civic engagement at a public university for the UB Council as:
"the generation and distribution of knowledge whose aim is to enrich public debate about the assorted social, cultural, economic, political, health, ethical, legal and religious issues that confront the multiple publics that make up the world within which we live." 5
These study guides contribute towards that effort. Those who can locate, use, and think critically about information prepared by their government contribute towards promoting civic engagement. Participants are expected to know how to do the following after completing these guides:
- Locate government information in print and digital formats.
- Locate information describing the positions and voting records of elected officials
- Apply critical thinking skills needed to evaluate this information.
- Apply the identical critical thinking skills to the evaluation of other kinds of information.
The guides include audio and visual aids, and, when appropriate, emulate online searching where participants must type and/or click appropriate information prior to proceeding. Questions and answers assess progress.
These videos require Adobe Flash Player.
Disclaimer: I am not always able to keep up with changes to Web sites. My intent is to teach people to locate government information and think about it critically through Web simulations, and questions and answers. When Web pages change, I hope users will still successfully apply the ideas and concepts discussed to retrieve their information and think about it critically.
|Part 1: Critical Thinking Skills|
Emphasis is upon the 5 W's—who, what, when, where, why—and how.
Video -- (runtime 9 minutes)
|Part 2: Searching the Internet|
|Part 3: Government Information and Depository Libraries|
Defines government information, emphasizes the wide range of information available through government information, and introduces depository libraries.
|Part 4: Locating Government Information with Google™|
Emphasis is upon basic and advanced Google searching to locate governemnt information.
Video -- (runtime 16 minutes)
|Part 5: Google™ Limitations When Searching for Government Information|
Discusses shortcomings of Google and other commercial search engines when indexing government information answering a basic question: why bother with all this when I can more easily Google my information?
|Part 6: Locating Government Information by Agencies: Types of Agencies|
A common method of locating government information is to determine which agency or agencies are most likely to publish the information. This module introduces types of government agencies. Subsequent sections describe how to locate specific agencies.
Video -- (runtime 5 minutes)
|Part 7: Locating Government Information by Agencies: Federal Agency Internet Sites|
Learn to locate government agency home pages using Federal Government Internet Sites, a directory to federal agency home pages supported by Louisiana State University in partnership with the Government Printing Office, and understand its advantages and disadvantages.
Video -- (runtime 6 minutes)
|Part 8: Locating Government Information by Agencies, United States Government Manual|
Locate government agencies in the print and online editions of the United States Government Manual, the official directory to the federal government.
Video -- (runtime 8 minutes)
1 Quote DB. http://www.quotedb.com/quotes/2708. Viewed June 11, 2008.
3 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. National Civic Literacy Board. Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions. Wilmington, DE, 2007. http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/report/pdf/09-18-07/civic_literacy_report_07-08.pdf. Viewed June 11, 2008, p. 2.
5 Judson Mead, “Developing civic responsibility: Focus on university as ‘good citizen’,” Reporter, April 20, 2006, http://www.buffalo.edu/reporter/vol37/vol37n29/articles/CivicEngagement.html, viewed August 8, 2007).