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.