What Can Higher Ed Learn from Libraries?

I am puzzled and dismayed by all the hostility toward being generally educated these days. Apart from high-profile slams on entire fields of study by a governor who was disappointed by his daughter’s choice of major, so declared it universally useless,there is the fact that in the budget just signed this week, the National Science Foundation has been instructed by Congress to only fund political science research  if it benefits national security and the national economic interest. The implication is that advancing knowledge does not make our country more secure or better off.

March 28, 2013

I am puzzled and dismayed by all the hostility toward being generally educated these days. Apart from high-profile slams on entire fields of study by a governor who was disappointed by his daughter’s choice of major, so declared it universally useless, there is the fact that in the budget just signed this week, the National Science Foundation has been instructed by Congress to only fund political science research  if it pertains to national security and the national economic interest.

The implication, of course, is that advancing knowledge does not make our country more secure or better off. Knowledge is an unaffordable luxury in an age of austerity for all but the 1% who are empowered to make these decisions for us. Education is not seen a social good but as a personal investment. Disaffected members of the public see no personal use for history, sociology, or philosophy. Where are the philosophy jobs? They don’t see it as transferrable preparation in things all employers want: a knack for clear reasoning, the ability to organize ideas and communicate them, the ability to solve problems, or as a solid foundation for further learning – which is something everyone needs because whatever training you get at age 22 is likely to be superseded by age 27.

A Nature editorial last year suggested that social sciences is more likely than the hard sciences to be understandable by the general public, and therefore up for debate in ways that “In In Situ X-ray Study of the Solid Electrolyte Interphase (SEI) Formation on Graphene as a Model Li-ion Battery Anode“ is not.  Political science has come under fire because it doesn’t provide easy answers. The social systems being studied are messy and complex. The author of the Nature editorial writes “To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous.“

Indeed. But distrusting the value of general knowledge is all the rage. I suspect a part of the problem is linguistic. A lot of people will have a viscerally negative reaction to both “liberal” and “arts.” The one sounds partisan and the other vaguely elitist and certainly impractical. It’s a difficult hill for faculty to die on, because defending the liberal arts is too often seen as (or in some cases actually is) an attack on programs not classified as liberal arts. Internecine squabbling doesn’t help.

Higher education is in a weird place. Everyone thinks they need to go to college (and increasingly those without a college degree won’t be able to find work, any work, without it).  But public funding has been slashed and students have to pick up the tab instead.  It’s not surprising that there is a backlash from people who feel they have no choice about going to college, but despair of getting the financial benefit they hope for.

Libraries are also in a weird place, but it’s different. Though some people assume libraries are archaic, we rarely encounter active hostility, calls for total overhaul, or public declarations of uselessness from elected officials. The other day a colleague overheard an admissions tour guide say “I haven’t actually checked out a  book here.” A parent responded, “well, people don’t really need libraries these days, do they?” The student, said, “no, it’s my major. Our research is mostly published in the form of articles.” The parent's prejudice is not unusual. People who haven’t used a library since they were kids can’t imagine a contemporary role for the library they used back in the day and don't know they've changed. Yet on the whole libraries enjoy a lot of good will. It’s a given that what people do when they use libraries is worthwhile, that libraries are not a symptom of creeping socialism or dangerously likely to corrupt our youth. Though libraries do face budget cuts, public officials know there will be widespread public pushback if they cut too deeply. Elected officials rarely disparage the purpose of libraries or cut off funding for branches of knowledge, insisting the funding be used for some subjects, but not others. Perhaps libraries are seen as innocuous, or perhaps it’s just that libraries escape public anger because their cost is bundled into local taxes or a tuition bill sent by someone else.

I suspect, though, that people feel the library is theirs. Sure, colleges and universities can generate a passionate sense of belonging, but it has little to do with the institution’s purpose, but rather to do with geography and athletic rivalries. The University of Minnesota  currently brands itself as “driven to discover,” but “Golden Gophers” is better known and more likely to trigger a sense of personal involvement.  

In many ways, libraries suffer from being too local, too tied to geographic boundaries, too reluctant to look at the big picture. Librarians spend too much money on content licensed for members only and have a hard time making significant change in the way knowledge is shared. But one thing we do right: we encourage those who use the library to feel a sense of personal agency within a communal setting. Researchers, whether they are experts or novices, get to mingle with the record of knowledge in a self-directed way. They are invited to make their own meaning with the assistance of all of that knowledge that others have produced. There’s something individually satisfying about being in a library, pursuing one's own questions, but in that solitary quest, there is also a sense of belonging to a broader purpose.

Somehow we need to find ways to foster that sense of belonging in the world of ideas on a broader scale, so that it becomes harder to pit STEM disciplines against the humanities, or pre-professional training against the liberal arts, or MOOCs against the classroom, or the people against the institutions that educate them and promote knowledge. 

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