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1995-1996 index

Distributed December 15, 1995
Contact: Tracie Sweeney

This is democracy in action

NEH provides continued funding for library-based discussion program

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- As the nation debates the wisdom of sending troops to Bosnia, the National Endowment for the Humanities has granted continuing funding to bring a successful discussion program on America's future to public libraries in eight states in 1996. Choices for the 21st Century is a library-based discussion program that engages the American public in a national debate over the role the United States should play in our rapidly changing world. The program does not advocate any particular point of view on this question.

With more than 450 programs already conducted in six states since 1992, the NEH has awarded the Choices Program a second grant $250,000 to offer programs in Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia. The program is funded as part of the National Conversation, an initiative of the NEH designed to engage the American public in study and conversation about the values Americans share and their influence on public life.

"Today there is a debate of long-term significance brewing in Washington and across the country about who we are as a nation and what role we should play in the world beyond our shores," said Susan Graseck, director of the Brown University-based Choices for the 21st Century Education Project, which sponsors the discussion series. "This is an extraordinary time for ordinary citizens to reclaim their role as participants in a meaningful public debate about issues that have a direct connection to daily life."

"This program provides an opportunity for citizen involvement in the development of national policy choices at a level that is far beyond the sound-bite exchanges of the TV or radio talk show," said Marta Daniels, national co-director of the Choices Library Program. "It articulates a new concept of what an engaged citizenry might look like by providing a vital tool for furthering constructive public dialogue on important national issues. This is democracy in action."

The program is a partnership among the Choices for the 21st Century Project of Brown University's Watson Institute, state library systems and state humanities councils, and local public libraries.

With the support provided by the NEH, the Choices Library Program will offer 360 programs in 90 libraries on such topics as regional conflicts, the environment, trade and the economy, China, and immigration. The national project office will provide a reader for use in discussions, marketing materials for use by state and local coordinators, and on-site training for scholars and library staff who organize and lead the discussions in local libraries. The program reaches across economic, social and cultural boundaries, and attracts citizens of all ages, education and experiences.

"Because of their historic mission of supporting an informed citizenry, public libraries are ideally suited to serve as an `intellectual public commons,' " said Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University and former president of the New York Public Library. "With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Choices Library Program will, in effect, institutionalize the habit of public discourse on critical policy issues in order to inject public deliberation back into our nation's policy-making process."

"The Choices Program has brought new people into libraries and invigorated public discourse in communities around the state of Illinois," said Dennis Kolinski, program officer at the Illinois Humanities Council. "When libraries tell us that their participants want to have more such programs, we can see that Americans truly feel a great need for public forums of this type."

That need is echoed in Virginia as well. "The series has provided Virginians with a forum in which to examine U.S. foreign policy options in terms of the nation's values and priorities, and share their opinions in an open, supportive and neutral environment," said Elissa Booth, Virginia state coordinator based at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.

How the Choices Library Program works

At the heart of the Choices Library Program is an exploration of four distinct visions, or "Futures," for the United States in the coming years. Each Future reflects a different assumption about the goals of U.S. foreign policy, the nature of international relations, and the place of foreign policy in our national life.

In the first session of the Choices series, participants use the Futures framework to explore distinctly different perspectives on U.S. foreign policy, examine the underlying values of each, identify the pros and cons, risks and tradeoffs of each, and consider the connections between values and the development of public policy. This session lays the foundation for the series.

In sessions two and three, participants examine challenges facing the United States in the post-Cold War era. In the final session, armed with a deeper appreciation of the values that are at stake in the development of public policy, participants define a future that reflects their own judgments about the role they believe the United States should play in the future. During this final session, they also fill out a ballot expressing their views. These ballots are then shared with elected officials.

The approach used in this program has its origins in research begun in 1982 by the Watson Institute's Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University in collaboration with the Public Agenda Foundation. The Choices methodology was used by researchers to understand public thinking on complex public policy issues. This methodology has been adapted for use in high schools and colleges by the Watson Institute's Choices for the 21st Century Education Project (on the World Wide Web at Choices curricular materials are used annually by more than 650,000 students in more than 3,500 high schools and colleges nationwide, and the Choices Education Project has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education as an effective instructional program.