Everyone Needs a Librarian

I hear there’s a presidential campaign on, so I’m feeling a bit political. I just can’t help myself. With all the policy suggestions going around, I wanted to offer one of my own.

There’s an intellectual breakthrough that comes when one begins to understand that merely stating opinions, no matter how forcefully they are stated, doesn’t impress intelligent people. Politicians, of course, rarely go out of their way to impress intelligent people, and thus sometimes never reach this point, at least in public. College students accomplish this breakthrough when they realize that assertions need argument and evidence and that evidence needs analysis and evaluation. Librarians play a crucial role in this discovery. Along with the instructors, they help students not only find sources for an argument, but help them learn how to analyze and evaluate these sources. It is part of our mission to educate people in the intelligent discovery and use of information. As I survey the state of the republic, sometimes I think everyone in the country needs a librarian. I recommend this as a new public policy. Perhaps the candidates could add this to their stump speeches.

Yesterday afternoon I heard a Fresh Air interview with Al Gore marking the occasion of the paperback publication of The Assault on Reason, his book from last year decrying the disappearance of reason and logic from public discourse. (I didn’t read the book, since I usually don’t read popular books that I think I’ll most likely agree with, but I read the excerpt here.) He noted in the interview and in the book that, for example, at the time of the vote to authorize the war in Iraq, 75% of the American public believed that the war was a retaliation against Saddam Hussein because of his responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. These were people immune from evidence, analysis, logic, and reason. They all needed their own librarians to help them find sources and evaluate their veracity and worth. Then there are those people who believe Senator Obama is a Muslim. Yep, they need librarians, too.

Or let us take the “gas tax holiday” being touted by Senators McCain and Clinton as a way to provide relief to those of us feeling financial pain at the pump. I’m pretty sure there are some sources in the library that would point out that reducing prices (as a tax holiday would do) stimulates demand. Increasing demand for oil will only drive up prices more in the long run as well as increase rather than decrease American dependence on foreign oil. One of the senators thinks the lost government revenue would be made up by taxing oil companies. There are probably some good sources somewhere in the library that point out that businesses make profits by passing their overhead on to consumers. I think those people in Congress have their own librarians, but other devotees of the “gas tax holiday” need their own librarian, too, someone to help them find, analyze, and evaluate sources.

Al Gore talks about the problems of having political discourse governed by 30-second television ads and television newscasters spending the vast majority of their time giving us constantly updated coverage of the banal and insubstantial while not providing coverage of any political debate (I’m paraphrasing). I’ll have to take his word for it, because I quit watching television over 20 years ago. (I do sometimes watch some TV shows on DVD, but I’ve hardly watched a commercial television show or news broadcast during just about my entire adult life.) He rightly notes that the Internet, if it’s kept neutral, can be a great way to bring information to people, and much better than television because it’s an interactive and hot medium. To some extent that’s certainly true. Despite the ravings of Andrew Keen and Tara Brabazon, there is in fact a tremendous amount of thoughtful political analysis on the Internet if one ventures beyond the opinion pages of the newspapers.

However, we could get rid of television entirely, and that wouldn’t help the problem of irrational political discourse. For every thoughtful bit of policy analysis, there are thousands of stories about Britney Spears and the like. Pornography and celebrity news make up such a large and popular portion of the Internet because that’s what people like. Researching and reasoning about difficult issues that will have enormous impacts on their lives is much more difficult than looking at Britney flashing her pudenda to the paparazzi. With cringing trepidation, I just checked the Google entertainment news. The top story was something about Britney Spears, naturally. The second story was about somebody convicted of something to do with stalking Uma Thurman (okay, that one was a little more interesting because he was a U. of Chicago grad school dropout. I wonder if Regenstein drove him to it!). And the third story was on some celebrity engagement. I give the lead paragraph in full: “Following the news that Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds have gotten engaged, friends are speaking out to offer heartfelt congratulations on the pairs’ next step.” I found that sentence fascinating in a number of different ways that had little to do with its literal meaning, but still, it’s fluffy stuff, and very easy to digest mentally.

Gore argues that “the remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way–a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response,” and that “the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework.” I agree, but I have a further suggestion. In addition, everyone needs a librarian to help them do research on important topics and learn how to analyze and evaluate the information they find, just like academic librarians do with students now. Some public librarians might argue that almost everyone does now in fact have a librarian, but fails to take advantage of this valuable resource. This just isn’t enough!

This should be done more the way we work with our writing program. Every class of twelve students is assigned a librarian, who teaches a bit about research and often meets individually with students. I propose everyone in the country be assigned a librarian, or perhaps every twelve persons. That’s the only way this thing’s going to work. The “Everyone Needs a Librarian” campaign assumes that what should be a prerequisite for engagement in democratic politics is in fact woefully lacking in this country, and proposes a solution to fix this problem. I think the ALA needs to get involved. The ALA has an Office of Intellectual Freedom. Perhaps they could also open an Office of Intellectual Rigor to address this issue. They could start on a committee. I’ll serve on it. Heck, I’ll even chair it.

Little Scope for Politics

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a recent article discussing the results of yet another study of why there aren’t many conservatives in academia. David Horowitz tours the country making the standard right-wing argument that leftist professors are indoctrinating students. The hard core ideological professors might be busily trying to indoctrinate their students. The other 99.9% of professors try to teach their students something about their subject. The students ignore the indoctrination attempts and the earnest attempts to teach, instead choosing to drink more beer and hook up more often. It’s a fun game where everyone gets what they want.

The debate over the politicization of academics has been hot at least since Tenured Radicals, which is the first book I read on the subject. This debate highlights one important difference between professors and academic librarians–that for librarians there’s little scope for politics. This is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I like politics, at least in theory. I read a lot about politics. I teach a writing seminar focused on politics. I follow campaigns. I even have an opinion about the Democratic primaries, but I won’t share it with you. I think most of the conservative scare about students being indoctrinated is malarkey, and I doubt any of the hundred “most dangerous professors” that Horowitz names are at all dangerous. But in a previous life I encountered the zeal of the political prophets and I didn’t like what I saw.

Fifteen or so years ago I entered graduate school in English at the University of Illinois. Because the program was one of those grad student mills that put the bulk of the teaching labor on the graduate students… sorry, that’s too harsh. I mean because learning to teach two sections of rhetoric while taking a full course load is very important training for the life of the itinerant adjunct that seemed to be the future of so many of the graduates because so few of them got tenure track jobs (that’s more diplomatic, I think), everyone entering the program went through a week long teaching boot camp, led by upper-level graduate students. I remember very well how a considerable portion of the discussions during that boot camp concerned not how to teach writing but how much trouble we were all going to have overcoming the conservatism of our students with our radical politics. Basically, they were trying to help us indoctrinate the students with leftist politics. Instead of teaching writing, the goal of many of the grad students was to teach the undergraduates how wrong they were about politics and how right we all were. I was pretty far left myself, but something struck me as wrong about the whole enterprise. First of all, it doesn’t work. Second of all, it’s a betrayal of a higher ideal than politics. The university is the church of reason, not the church of partisanship.

Years later I was working in the writing clinic on campus while in library school, and I recall that during a staff meeting one of the lily-white, suburban-bred, writing studies grad students went on at length about how she used her rhetoric classes to to politicize her students and show them how the bad education they had received in inner city Chicago was the fault of an unjust system. She got no argument from anyone, including me, about the unjustness of the system. But mainly she wanted to teach them to be angry. I thought that was easier than teaching them to write. She also said she more or less spent the class validating their poor writing because it was an authentic expression of their culture and because they were such victims. Standard English, after all, is just the idiom of the oppressive elite. I’m sure they appreciated all this anger and validation when they tried to write job application letters after college.

It was always the grad students, never the professors. The silliness of this grad student culture was one of the reasons I left the English department. The quotidian practicality of library school was refreshing after such nonsense.

Teachers have an opportunity to politically indoctrinate students, even though only the worst ones ever try to do it. One of the nice things about being a librarian is that the job offers little scope for politics, which is why nobody cares much that librarians in general probably skew more left than professors. It just doesn’t come up. There are plenty of political issues regarding libraries, but ultimately library research is good or bad regardless of your politics. The radical historian and the reactionary historian might interpret the historical record differently, but their research shouldn’t be determined in advance by political concerns. Scholars are supposed to hold a standard of research and evidence that transcends their political views, which is why books like Bellesiles’ Arming America cause scandals.

An important part of the job of academic librarians is teaching research skills and helping students avoid the sort of pitfalls politicized “scholarship” can lead to. There’s very little difference between a professor deciding to misquote letters and make up statistics to support an argument about guns in America and a student who says, “I’m writing a paper on X and I need five sources that prove my thesis.” If students are making arguments we disagree with, we don’t refuse to help them. We don’t provide students with sources on only one side of an issue. We want students to explore a subject in depth and form conclusions based upon the evidence, which is what most teachers want.

Collection development offers some scope for political bias, and I suppose there are slipshod librarians who refuse to buy conservative books or subscribe to conservative journals because they don’t agree with them, just as in the past there were plenty of librarians who wouldn’t collect radical literature. If we’re true to our mission, however, we don’t refuse to collect material because of its political view, whatever that is. Academic standards of reason, truth, and evidence are more important than promoting our political views. The best scholarship transcends the partisan hack work that emanates from the right and left in this country, because it’s based on higher standards of truth and evidence. The best teachers don’t try to indoctrinate; they try to persuade based on the evidence. The best librarians help supply the evidence. And, after all, if we’re right, the evidence should demonstrate that.

American Rhetoric

As the fall semester approaches, I’ve been thinking more about political rhetoric. In my writing seminar, we mostly read political philosophy, but we also study rhetoric and analyze popular arguments as well. (My students last semester analyzed popular politics on the class blog, which I think is pretty good.)

Recently I came across the American Freedom Campaign, an effort by several groups to define “American” as including an opposition to torture or the suspension of habeas corpus. It’s hard to believe, but some powerful Americans seem to support these things. Not the American Freedom Campaign, though. Here, for example, is the “Freedom Pledge” they’d like you to sign:

“We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people’s phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.

I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.”

And they also say that, “under the pretense of the ‘war on terror,’ the White House is dismantling the Constitution, concentrating power in the President and undermining the rule of law. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN.”

In addition to its appeal on other grounds, it’s interesting for the way it plays with some traditional American political rhetoric. What is American? Is it everything that has happened in America? Or only the best parts of the American tradition? Or perhaps that which is unique to America?

Many people criticize America for its past slavery, for example, but slavery wasn’t unique to America. Creating a written Constitution that more or less enshrined classical liberal goals was unique, as was creating a country based on the ideas of liberty and freedom. (For a great book on the distinction between American “liberty” and “freedom,” read David Hackett Fischer’s outstanding book Liberty and Freedom. He uses liberty more in the sense of “freedom from” or what Isaiah Berlin would call “negative liberty” or Benjamin Constant would call the “freedom of the moderns,” while freedom is more like the civic republican notion of political participation and self-government, what Berlin might call “positive liberty” and Constant the “liberty of the ancients.” Fischer does a remarkable job of showing the power of these concepts in American history.)

So is the deplorable history of slavery and racism “American,” or instead are the ideas of freedom and political equality that inspired the founders and led to the eventual end of slavery more “American”? Can both be “American”? Only, I suppose, if “American” is taken in the least meaningful sense of “things that happened in America.” If “American” means those things unique to America, then the term becomes more meaningful, and not just politically. “American” then would include jazz and blues music, for example, but not racism or sexism, which are hardly confined to the United States.

There’s the old saying, “as American as mom and apple pie.” That’s just silly. I don’t know where apple pie originated, but I’m pretty sure there were mothers before the United States existed. But what could be more American than Robert Johnson, or Thelonious Monk, or Johnny Cash, or Wild Turkey, or the rule of law enshrined in a written constitution?

The American Freedom Campaign is plotting a different rhetorical course, though, one where “American” has a powerful political meaning, in this sense one of “a nation of laws.”

I think the American Freedom Campaign’s tactic is both more true and more useful than either a negative anti-Americanism or an overbroad definition of “American.” Defining “American” as whatever happened in America guts the term of any political usefulness, for the left or the right. Thinking of the history of America as the history of slavery, genocide, and oppression (as a friend of mine does) also reduces the power of the term “American.” American and Un-American could be politically powerful if used in effective ways. Reminding people that freedom, liberty, equality, and the rule of law are American, and their opposites un-American, can be persuasive in a way that hostile political rhetoric never can be.