THE “CURRENCY OF DEMOCRACY”

Martin Grove Brumbaugh shared his ideas on education and democracy when he was the superintendent of public schools of Philadelphia. (Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The aphorism “information is the currency of democracy” has often been used by transparency advocates to lobby for openness in government. Most attribute that phrase to consumer advocate Ralph Nader.1Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are next target for Nader’s band of reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.” Others misattributed it to Thomas Jefferson.2Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the currency of democracy (spurious quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation. But I’ve found what appears to be an antecedent of sorts to the saying. In his 1908 annual report, the superintendent of public schools of Philadelphia, Martin Grove Brumbaugh wrote:

Two individuals can participate in a common cause only to the extent that they possess common sentiment and common knowledge. To increase their effective participation requires a broadening of their common knowledge. To make participation impossible requires only the absence of common knowledge. This holds true throughout. Hence our democracy depends upon the possession by all its individual participants of a fund of common knowledge, which fund is the currency of democracy; and the function of the public school is to impart such a fund of common knowledge to all that participate in our democracy as to make facile the interchange of ideas and the reciprocal regard of each for the other. The initiation into democracy should always be contingent upon the possession of this common knowledge. For that reason the stranger from without should serve an apprenticeship in the American public school before he is invested with the toga of American citizenship. Likewise any one in our midst, native or foreign born, that has neglected to fit himself for participation in our democracy should be denied what his own neglect prevents him from comprehending.

Moreover, the growth of democracy, as well as its security, depends upon the widening of this fund of common knowledge. Hence the specific means of promoting the best traditions in our national life will be found to lie in the increased efficiency of the schools. What the school is as the creator of common thought and common sentiment determines what our democracy is. Upon this basis the state supports the school, and the system of education is maintained by taxation prescribed by the laws of the state. The measure of this financial support is the measure of our belief in democracy. When any citizen opposes an equitable, indeed, a liberal support to the schools, he opposes the government itself.3Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.

Brumbaugh, who “drastically reorganized the ways schools operated and taught children by building additional primary and secondary schools, reforming academic programs in the high schools, and raising teacher salaries,” would go on to become the Republican governor of Pennsylvania.4The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.

References   [ + ]

1. Senate Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Committee on Government Operations, Hearings on S. 1637 to Establish Standards and Procedures for Government Advisory Committees, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., 1971, 985; Washington Bureau of The Sun, “Flaws in Congress are next target for Nader’s band of reformers,” The Baltimore Sun, November 3, 1971; Ralph Nader, “The underachievements of Congress,” The New York Times, December 23, 1971. Nader used that phrase on October 11, 1971 while testifying before a Senate subcommittee. He used it again and more publicly during a November 2, 1971 speech to the National Press Club where he announced the launch of “the most comprehensive and detailed study of the Congress since its establishment.”
2. Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, s.v. “Information is the currency of democracy (spurious quotation),” accessed March 2, 2018, https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/information-currency-democracy-spurious-quotation. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a non-profit corporation that owns and operates the American Founding Father’s former plantation, currently has “no evidence to confirm that he ever said or wrote, ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’” As a result, it has labelled it a spurious quotation.
3. Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Philadelphia for the Year Ending December 31, 1908 (Philadelphia, PA, 1909), 18.
4. The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, s.v. “Martin G. Brumbaugh,” accessed March 2, 2018, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/education-and-opportunity-2/3c09824v/.

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