I am going to link to an editorial that is not like what we normally link to here, but it is on a favorite topic of mine, one that I have written about here before (here, here, here, and here), in order to continue asking a question and perhaps to challenge our faith as librarians. Mark Morfords has a column in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle about elitism, in a positive sense, titled, 37 Percent of People Completely Lost. Morfords is asking the uncomfortable question about how a democracy can function when the population is, as measured by surveys, shockingly ignorant and determined to stay that way. He further suggests that providing more and better facts to the ignorant multitudes has not worked and is not going to work, which challenges the faith of librarians who see our mission as supporting the foundations of democracy through information. What do you think?
ACRL has embarked on the important, even urgent, initiative to support academic libraries in articulating and demonstrating their value to their institutions at a time in which higher education in general finds itself constantly defending its value. Accountability at numerous levels, from our federal government to our university boards of trustees, is the clarion call of the day. Assessment, accountability, and value have been inexorably linked over the past several decades. Assessing the impact of [information literacy instruction, freshman seminars, general education, fill in the blank] on student learning and achievement is both a means of being accountable to our stakeholders (parents, policy makers, tax payers, etc.) but also demonstrating our value (Why should we continue to exist?). For many academic librarians, specifically those invested in information literacy (IL) instruction programs; the assessment movement has been beneficial insofar as it has meant that IL has become central to many college and university assessment efforts. It has been very satisfying to have our work validated as core to the undergraduate curriculum. However, like many aspects of the curriculum, the value of IL instruction programs is in question, as are the many other services, contents, and processes of the academic library. Assessing the value (financial, impact, or otherwise) of these services, use of contents, and efficiency of processes becomes our means of proving (being accountable) our relevancy in higher education. For instruction librarians this has meant a move from simply recording how many students we’ve reached (whether through classroom instruction, online tutorials, research appointments) to developing IL learning outcomes that are assessed at the course level as well as the institutional level. While we appreciate the growing adoption of IL learning outcomes in core curricula, it is worrisome that it may be simply to satisfy external pressure (i.e. accrediting agencies). Because ultimately the pressure from both external and internal stakeholders is framed in economic terms—return on investment. As educators, the value of assessment should be because it informs our practice (and praxis).
Published in 2010 the Value of Academic Libraries: A Comprehensive Research Review and Report prepared by Megan Oakleaf claims that academic library stakeholders “tend to focus on two” particular ways of defining value: financial and impact value (p. 22). The report takes as a given that academic librarians will need to prove that we manage our financial resources well and somehow bring money into our institutions (p. 22). However the report also recognizes that the more meaningful piece for librarians may be in demonstrating “impact value:” “This position posits that academic library value is not primarily a financial concept; rather the value of information is its contribution to making improvements in users (Wilson, Stenson and Oppenheim 2000, 3-4)” (p. 24). Nonetheless impact value as described in the report still pivots on a conception of value as an economic construct of sorts, a return on investment embodied by an improvement in the user. The term “improvement” suggests that information has increased the value of the individual. Information, as object and commodity, and teaching and learning may indeed increase the market value of the individual, but for many information literacy instruction librarians the value of teaching is not measureable in economic terms but is instead that which “transforms”. In other words the transformative value is that which develops critical consciousness, a broadening of one’s worldview in order to appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives and the complexity of any given issue or situation. Transformation may alter but not necessarily improve or increase impact value (i.e. retention, graduation rates, career success, GPA, etc.).
A recent follow-up to the 2010 report, Connect, Collaborate, and Communicate: A Report from the Value of Academic Libraries Summit (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2012) does attend to some transformative values, for example “academic intimacy” (p. 12), yet seems to ignore these in their “Actions for the profession” items. In the spirit of action item 3.3, “to “Build a community of practice to engage and sustain professional dialogue about library value,” we’d like to consider the integration of our understanding of library value with our professional values.
Some of the foundational Core Values of librarianship (American Library Association, 2004) include free access to information, democracy as it hinges on an informed citizenry and the First Amendment’s mandate to free expression, the public good, and social responsibility. Is the concept of value as articulated in the ACRL value reports antithetical to these core values expressed by ALA?
In a recent post from In the Library With a Lead Pipe, Emily Ford asks us to consider the “why” of what we do as an intervention in what she sees as failed attempts to demonstrate our value. Ford recommends that the library community develop a philosophy of librarianship. She suggests that engaging with philosophy will enable the library community to move from practice to praxis—professional practice informed by theory, or a philosophical framework. Perhaps we need only look to our Core Values to articulate a philosophy of librarianship.
Barbara Fister emphasizes the importance of Ford’s recommendations (Fister, 2012, August 28) and also shares thoughts on value and values in a recent post (2012, September 19), stating that:
“We librarians seem anxious to prove our value these days, but what we really should articulate more clearly and loudly is our values. When we focus on defending our existence to our administrators, we end up…with a focus far too narrow, too parochial, too myopic to ensure that our values inform what libraries should be.”
We’d like to see this conversation grow on the apparent disconnect between articulating our value with our values, especially in relation to information literacy instruction. We have submitted for consideration a proposal for an ACRL Instruction Section Current Issue Discussion Group at ALA Annual with the hope that other instruction librarians are also concerned about the apparent disconnect between our value and our values. However, it is likely that the proposal is too philosophical to be accepted, so we’d love to get your feedback here, at the Library Juice Blog, or via personal email.
Can we articulate our Core Values while also demonstrating our value in economic terms? Do we risk losing our value as defenders/providers of equity of access, free speech, intellectual freedom, and the public good if we concede to the narrative of crisis fueling the value initiative? How do we fit our Core Values into our information literacy learning outcomes? Is it possible to re-orient the conversation in order to re-value conceptions of value?
Lua Gregory & Shana Higgins
American Library Association. (2004). Core values of librarianship. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/corevaluesstatement/corevalues.
Association of College and Research Libraries. (2012). Connect, collaborate, and communicate: A report from the value of academic libraries summits. Prepared by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.
Fister, B. (2012, August 28). The self-centered library: A paradox. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/self-centered-library-paradox.
Fister, B. (2012, September 19). What libraries should be: A values proposition. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/what-libraries-should-be-values-proposition.
Ford, E. (2012, August 8). What we do and why we do it? In the Library With a Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2012/what-do-we-do-and-why-do-we-do-it/.
Oakleaf, M. (2010). The value of academic libraries: A comprehensive research review and report. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.
Wilson, R. M. S., Stenson, J., & Oppenheim, C. (2000). Valuation of information assets. Loughborough: Loughborough University.
I have just done an interview with Maria Accardi for the Library Juice Academy news blog. Maria is teaching a class next month called, “Changing Lives, Changing the World: Information Literacy and Critical Pedagogy.” This course is based on part on work that she did leading up to her co-editing the book published by Library Juice Press in 2010, Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Maria talks about how she teaches this class in a way that is designed to let participants’ own experiences and insights play a big part in the learning process, and what this class was like when she taught it previously.
I just listened to the latest episode of Steve Thomas’s podcast, “Circulating Ideas,” with academic librarians Lauren Pressley and Lynda Kellam. Towards the end of the show, they discussed how they’re teaching their students to evaluate information but questioned how they’re doing with the “finding things” part. “Are they [the students] making the connection that they can go to their public library to do this kind of work?” asked Kellam. “How are we making that jump into – what does this mean for when you get out of here?” Kellam and Pressley pointed out that in school, the students are educated with resources that may not be available to them once they leave. How does information literacy as it’s taught in college library labs translate into living in the real world after they graduate? And, as they put it, how do you make the connection to the public library in an instructional “one-shot”?
A few months ago, I talked to a librarian at one of the City University of New York (CUNY) campuses who had also started thinking about how the concept of “lifelong learning” fits into what he does at work. I don’t know whether he’s been able to incorporate any new techniques into his instruction, but I think it’s a great thing for academic librarians to consider. After all, we spend many more years – decades – navigating life and (ideally) learning as we go along than we do figuring out how to limit proprietary periodical database results to peer-reviewed articles just because the professor told us to. More recently, a colleague and I met with a few librarians (including the marvelous Alycia Sellie) at one of the local CUNY campuses. We talked about creating handouts that would cross-reference community college and public library resources, and we brainstormed programs at the public library that could supplement academic library instruction (such as “Got a Paper?” clinics).
Because, of course, we in the public library are already seeing your students, academic librarians – at least in my system in NYC, we get lots of CUNY and other college students coming to the reference desk, usually in search of books on their various syllabi. Sometimes we have what they’re looking for, but often we have to gently explain that the public library doesn’t have any university-level economics textbooks, much less the 12th edition of the one that their professor has assigned. Many times the patrons are just accustomed to going to their neighborhood library when they need a book or articles or “information,” and I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to disabuse them of that notion – even though at this stage in their life they need to realize that we’re more likely than not going to refer them back to their school.
In California, LILi (Lifelong Information Literacy) is “a group of librarians from various types of California libraries, investigating information literacy definitions, standards and instruction in California, in order to craft effective models of lifelong, sequential information literacy instruction.” Maybe one day we’ll have something similar in New York City (and in your town or city as well) that formally brings together school, public, and academic librarians. But regardless of whether it’s institutionalized – how can academic and public librarians work together now to prepare students to handle all of the information needs they’ll encounter throughout their lives?
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a presentation of research projects at METRO, New York City’s major library consortium. The researchers were almost all practicing librarians, mostly at academic institutions, who worked in groups on topics of their choice. The approach of three out of the four groups was primarily to kind of shop themselves out as information experts available to assist in the work of the given organization or individual.
I was particularly interested in the fashion blogging project, not because I’m interested in fashion blogs but because their report combined several things that I do find engaging – the ways in which librarians try to get people in other fields to pay attention to us and our training, librarians’ desire to be helpful and share our expertise, the communication channels of specialized communities, information behavior data gathering methodology, and people’s desire for “authenticity.” Here, that last element manifested as the fashion bloggers’ general unwillingness to ask for or accept research and citation assistance in their writing, since research was part of their job as a blogger. Instead, they said they wanted help along the lines of a photographer or an image organizer.
In the case of the librarians who chose to work with Occupy Wall Street, they were challenged by mistrust from OWS in general (fear of infiltration, of course; it didn’t seem like they had any ties to NYC lefty communities who could vouch for them), but especially, they said, from the OWS librarians. They ended up establishing contact with the Eco Cluster, who were enthusiastic about the prospect of research help. Ultimately, they all decided that an annotated bibliography on climate change impacts would be a useful project to tackle. The bibliography was presented at relevant events this spring – some people from the OWS group brought the bibliography to the Climate Impact Day in May and Rio+20 in June. They got some nice feedback: “[W]hat MyMetro Reseachers have handed grassroots campaigners is a compendium of information that would be tricky for the general public to track down using a common search engine,” wrote an eco blogger and activist.
Take a look at that bibliography and read the other groups’ reports – besides fashion blogging and OWS, the topics were lifelong learning for seniors and social media use by an elementary school’s Friends group. I think it’s great that METRO is encouraging this kind of real-life inquiry and extension of library skills.
Call for Papers: Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond
Call for Papers
TITLE: Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond (An Edited Collection)
EDITOR: Melissa Morrone is a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library and has been involved in Radical Reference as well as other social justice groups.
BOOK ABSTRACT: In librarianship today, we encourage voices from our field to join conversations in other disciplines as well as in the broader culture. People who work in libraries and are sympathetic to or directly involved in social justice struggles have long embodied this idea, as they make use of their skills in the service of those causes. Following in the tradition of works such as Activism in American Librarianship, 1962-1973; Revolting Librarians; and Revolting Librarians Redux, this title will be a look into the projects and pursuits of activist librarianship in the early 21st century.
POSSIBLE TOPICS: Essays should describe specific activities undertaken by the library worker and how the work was received by fellow activists and/or the constituents of the project. Such activities may include:
- Programming and collection development that gives voice to underrepresented communities and subjects.
- Conducting community-based reference or other information services outside of any institutional affiliation.
- Setting up libraries or archives in political organizations and contexts.
- Doing research on behalf of social justice campaigns.
- Training people in technology and content creation with the goal of community empowerment.
- Other creative ways of using library and information skills to support activist causes, both inside and outside of conventional library settings.
Essays should also include analysis of the ways in which these activities are in sync with but may also challenge the “core values” of librarianship.
OBJECTIVE OF THE BOOK: This edited collection, to be published by Library Juice Press in June 2013 asks: How and to what end are people using their library skills in the service of wider social justice causes? What do these activities say about the future of library work, both inside and outside of traditional institutions?
- People interested in going into librarianship who want an idea of nontraditional and activist areas in which librarians operate.
- Practicing library workers seeking inspiration for ways to combine their expertise with their political interests outside the library.
- Practicing library workers who want articulations of how their work fits into a broader context of power structures, politics, and social justice.
- Activists interested in collaborations with library workers and/or projects related to literature, information, education, and documentation in social movements.
- People in other fields who want to draw connections between their own work and social justice goals, and are looking for supportive literature.
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Please submit abstracts and proposals of up to 500 words to informed.agitation AT gmail by July 15, 2012. Notifications will be sent by September 1. A first draft from 1,500-7,000 words will be due by November 15, and final manuscripts will be due by January 15, 2013.
A site set up by tricky spammers, potentially useful in information literacy instruction: “CNBC” report on “income at home system.”
I was honored when Rory Litwin asked me to write for Library Juice. I have followed the blog for some time now and have always found it a source of interest. As this is my first post, I thought I’d write on an issue that I find to be central to librarianship, namely, the tension between our role to provide general access to information and our roles as reference librarians or research assistants. Historically, librarians were responsible for relatively discrete collections about which few people had much knowledge. Consequently, the main service that librarians provided was to help patrons find resources — particularly the best resources – available in their collections. Furthermore, there wasn’t much chance of accessing holdings outside of those collections, so when librarians could acquire more resources, they needed to be very sure that the new acquisitions were the best that were available. Librarians were constantly making judgments about the quality of the resources that they were providing to their patrons.
To some extent this is still true, but during the past half century or so, our profession has concentrated on expanding access. Our roles as reader advisors, research assistants, and collection curators have declined, and our role in linking our patrons to vast storehouses of information through interlibrary loan systems, aggregated databases, and automated search tools has expanded. In many circles, arranging access seems to be taken to be the whole of librarianship. It isn’t surprising, then, that the success of Google and other popular search engines has caused such anxiety among librarians. If access is our sole reason for being, then what do we do when our “competitors” can satisfy our patrons’ needs more quickly, easily, and effectively?
Recently, I’ve come to think that we should remember that providing access is only one of our professional responsibilities, and that it probably has become overemphasized. We need to reengage in the activities we left behind when we turned our efforts so much to providing access. In a time when information availability is exploding, we should remember that our patrons need guidance through the morass of data that lurks behind every poorly constructed search. We can do this, not just by “going to where they are” and offering to do their searches for them, but by seeking out the best resources and making those particular resources more readily available.
Practically speaking, this means that librarians must begin to de-emphasize the value of access in general and re-emphasize their role as research assistants. We need to provide our patrons with the reader advisory services that were once a core element of our work. In academic libraries, this can be done most readily by creating guides to the literature, but those guides need to go far beyond what we see in most guides. They need to be more than simply lists of useful databases and video tutorials on using various search tools. They need to do such things as introduce patrons to the nature of the field of study, provide a history of its devepment, and identify its most important figures, and its classic and important current works. Library administrations will need to hire subject specialists with significant expertise, who are potentially capable of teaching courses in the departments they serve.
Of course, this presents a challenge to our desire to remain “neutral” or “unbiased” with regard to the subject matter that we make available, but we need not shy away from the challenge. We must conscientiously identify the information that we judge to be most worthwhile, while remaining reasonably humble about our abilities to discriminate the wheat from the chaff. We need to exercise our right to the freedoms that our teaching colleagues have in expressing our views about our fields of expertise. We owe it to our patrons to apply our professional judgment about the value of the resources available to them and not simply serve as human cogs in an access providing machine.
For those who have noted, along with Jon Stewart, that in the Fox News era the media treats facts in a relative way, as a matter of political taste… This phenomenon was first described by Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” According to Marcuse, it is a problem of the media system itself. Whatever ideas it communicates, as radical as they may be, become an entertainment commodity that audiences consume. It is a pessimistic standpoint, but it does clarify the fact that there is a way to stand outside the mass media system.
I would like to use this point of Marcuse to challenge librarians to reflect on their own understanding of information literacy and how we teach about it to our students. Are you teaching students to be outside of the world of media messages as thinkers and doers? I think that critical thinking, which is the heart of information literacy, is not possible without that ability.
CFP: Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis (An Edited Collection)
Shana Higgins and Lua Gregory are instruction and reference librarians at University of Redlands. They recently co-taught a first-year seminar titled, “Bleep! Censorship and Free Speech in the U.S.”
In her award winning essay “Information Literacy and Reflective Pedagogical Praxis,” Heidi L.M. Jacobs draws out the inherent democratizing and social justice elements of information literacy as defined in the “Alexandria Proclamation On Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning.” She suggests that because of these underlying social justice elements, information literacy “is not only educational but also inherently political, cultural, and social” (258). We propose to extend the discussion of information literacy and its social justice aspects that James Elmborg, Cushla Kapitzke, Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, and Maura Seale have begun. If we consider the democratizing values implicit in librarianship’s professional ethics (such as intellectual freedom, social responsibility, diversity, democracy and privacy, among others) in relation to the sociopolitical context of information literacy, we will begin to make intentional connections between professional advocacy and curriculum and pedagogy. We hope this book will encourage a renewal of professional discourse about libraries in their social context, through a re-activation of the “neutrality debate,” as well as through an investigation of what it means for a global citizen to be information literate in late capitalism.
Objective of book:
This edited collection, to be published by Library Juice Press in Fall 2012, poses the following questions: What are the limits of standards and outcomes, such as ACRL’s [i.e. Standard 1.2 The information literate student identifies a variety of types and formats of potential sources for information. ], in fitting information literacy instruction to the complex contexts of information in the real world? Would the teaching of social justice and the democratizing values of the library profession strengthen critical information literacy in the classroom? And how do we balance the need to teach search skills and critical information literacy in our instructional efforts?
The target audience for this book includes instruction librarians, library instruction program coordinators, faculty and instructors interested in information literacy, and all librarians interested in the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of the production, dissemination, suppression, and consumption of information.
We encourage proposals on the intersections of information literacy instruction with the democratizing values of the library profession.
- Possible topics may include information literacy aspects of media coverage of war and embedded journalism, renewal of the Patriot Act, market-based censorship, for-profit libraries (Library Systems & Services), EPA library closures and access to environmental information, immigrants and library access, Wikileaks and government censorship, corporate censorship, anti-communism and anti-socialism in the media, classification of government documents, international and comparative studies on censorship, First Amendment protection to whistleblowers and the press, British Petroleum and oil spill research, global warming censorship, and library database mergers.
- Examples of information literacy sessions focusing on the above topics and/or framed by democratizing and social justice values of the library profession. Examples can also be aimed at specific disciplines.
- Discussions of theories/theorists (e.g. Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, C. Wright Mills, Paulo Friere, Peter McClaren, etc.) and their usefulness in illuminating sociopolitical contexts of information within the classroom.
- Discussions on the “neutrality debate” in light of the sociopolitical and cultural context of information.
Please submit abstracts and proposals of up to 500 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by September 15, 2011. Notifications will be sent by November 1 and manuscripts from 1,500-7,000 words will be due by March 1, 2012.
Julia Skinner has posted a thoughtful review of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods to her blog. Her review will give readers a good sense of whether the books is for them.
Librarians doing bibliographic instruction in college settings will most likely find little in this study out of the citation project that they didn’t already know from first-hand experience, but it is very good to see it as a research finding:
ATLANTA — An analysis of research papers written in first-year composition courses at 15 colleges reveals that many students simply copy chunks of text from the sources they cite without truly grasping the underlying argument, quality or context.
“The findings are not happy news for how writing is taught,” Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, said here Thursday at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. “[Students] are not selecting authoritative, meaningful sources and not reading them carefully. They are not, in a word, engaging.”
I was discussing the free press with a Russian friend once, and she told me that the main difference between Soviet Russia and the contemporary USA was that Russians knew they were being lied to, while Americans have naively believed that what the news says is the truth. Amusingly, right wing skeptics are presently doubting the US military line regarding the missile sighting on the California coast, as though today’s Pentagon is a different Pentagon from the one they backed and trusted during the Bush administration. At any rate, it does look as though Americans are in a mood to doubt the honesty of the government.
But what about the news media? If the news media were a branch of government, obviously Americans would doubt it in much the same way that Soviet Russians doubted Pravda. Paradoxically, the American news media has become less reliable at the same time that it has become popularized. News organizations are being squeezed by declining revenues and shareholder demands for higher profit margins, and consequently are weaker in the newsroom than they have been in a long time, less capable of solid investigative journalism. The result is that the news media has to trust and rely more than in the past on the products of public relations people, working for both corporations and government. PR firms and the PR departments of government are responsible for most of what we read as “news” (even more than in the past). The news media is more propagandized and filtered than in the 20th century, while at the same time more “popular” in tone, to appeal to a customer base that increasingly distrusts “elites.” New media, blogs, etc., are often cited as representing a hope for greater democracy, but when democracy means channeling corporate and government propaganda, that hope is rather pale.
That said, the diversity of new media has to be recognized, and the importance of a free press, whether it is relevant to the average person or not, is something that we become cynical about at our peril. Case in point, a post from yesterday’s Machetera blog regarding a meeting at the Capitol building today. The meeting is called “Anger in the Andes: Threats to Democracy, Human Rights and Inter-American Security.” I am not sure whether the meeting will be open to the public or whether proceedings will be publicly available, or not. The blog post talks about players from the Latin American right wing who are scheduled to be present at the meeting. I recognized some of the names and am aware of some of the historical events that others are associated with. (I blogged about a couple of them last month.) The list has quite a few known terrorists, and other baddies involved in right wing coups d’etat and assassinations. For all the Tea Partiers’ assertions that the Obama Administration is socialist, it seems our government has maintained its ties with fascist elements in Latin America. But to say that because of that (or because of the Democrats, which it regrettably needs to be objected) we are a fascist state would be to take for granted the press freedoms that allow the Machetera blog to share this news with us without fear of (ahem) surveillance or harassment. (That statement might need to be qualified, however – you can read the blog to see why. To say that we have a free press that is overwhelmed by propaganda would be to oversimplify things a bit, when American dissidents (radical or perhaps not) sometimes face consequences that don’t make news.)
I don’t read a lot of blogs so I don’t know, but I would guess this story is being blogged like crazy: Yesterday the Washington Post reported a Bloomberg National Poll: “Poll shows Americans don’t know economy expanded with tax cuts.” The story starts:
The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters.
Most voters don’t believe it.
A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.
Obviously, a librarian blogger has to say, “This is an example of why it is important to teach information literacy.”
I want to ask the question, though, if those polled got the facts wrong by a two-to-one margin, isn’t it likely that among those who have it wrong there are a lot of librarians, who presumably should know better? I am just wondering, how many librarians incorrectly believe, along with two out of every three other Americans, that during the Obama Presidency taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered? How qualified are the majority of us to teach the principles of information literacy that we so value?
The underlying reason that the American Right will always be irrational, and a couple of ideas as to why the problem is presently so acute
As the more civic-minded among us have observed, the American Right has mostly rejected rational discourse in favor of strategic communication. There is a reason for it that has to do with more than a calculation of what will be most effective, or a fear that rational discourse will “prove them wrong,” though that is a risk for them. The reason lies in a conflict between conservatism (which I am not going to say is a bad thing altogether) and the original formation of the United States as an experiment in liberal Enlightenment ideas that had never been tried before, paired with the related development of the growth of an economic system that finally overturned all traditional values: capitalism.
By definition, conservatives are suspicious of political changes that threaten to destabilize the world as they have known it, and are often pushing to bring things “back to the way they were,” to go “back to basics,” restore things to “the way God intended them,” to save society from the arrogance, folly, and hubris of liberal humanists who believe that we have the ability to reshape things to the benefit of humankind, according to human values rather than divine ones. Conservatives tend to believe that attempts to change things deeply will only result in problems, because at root the nature of things is unchangeable (owing to God). The tendency has historically led to support for authority, strong leaders, and strong states as the forces that can promise a “return to stability.”
But, frustratingly enough for conservatives, and as Heraclitus wrote in the 5th century BC, “the only thing constant is change.” The problem for conservatives in power has always been in how to construct a reliable past that can serve as a touchstone and source of energy in opposition to those who attempt to modify the social order. Over the centuries, that problem has been solved in literature and art that put forth new founding myths and told new stories about the past (as well as through the destruction of the literature and art that carried the older ones). No great new order has been innocent of that kind of mythmaking and myth destruction. But creative falsification of the past is not as easy to accomplish in the modern world, built as it is on an epistemology of objectivity and the practical application of documented facts, which tend to hang around in a society built on a framework of documentation.
But in the United States, I would like to say, the problems conservatives face in constructing a traditional past are special, because the origins of our nation themselves imply that there is nothing traditional to go back to. Conservatives have understandable difficulty in acknowledging that the United States represents the triumph of liberal humanists who accomplished something unprecedented, bold, and liberal: the creation of a new country founded in Enlightenment ideas and the rejection of monarchy. As Charles Francis Adams wrote, “The American experiment is the most tremendous and far reaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind.” What American conservatives call “traditional values” tend to be an awkward mix of social structures and practices that were the product of the industrial revolution (e.g. “traditional marriage” as we know it) and Enlightenment humanist values that trace back to the Age of Reason (i.e. individualism, capitalism), animated by religious self-certainty and fear. (If you want to look for real American traditional values that are actually consistent and coherent, by the way, look for them in Native American spirituality.)
Some conservative intellectuals try to piece together a concept of “republicanism” that conflates Republican Party values with historically recurring efforts at self-government in the form of a republic, but they ignore the fact that the republican form of government has always been tied to liberal Enlightenment phases in culture, whose political manifestation was to kick out the monarchs and overturn tradition in favor of an experimental system based on rational discourse among a civic public. The First Republic of France and the United States of America are perfect examples. The fact that there were earlier republics does not change the fact that those republics were tied to Enlightenment cultural phases, i.e., were liberal. “Republicanism” when it is intended to invoke both conservatism as we think of it in America today and the historically recurring creation of republican governments is simply an incoherent concept.
The ideas that motivate American conservatives do not cohere well in rational terms (especially as they move rightward along the spectrum), but because they carry the emotional charge of ‘absolute truth,’ ‘that which is beyond question,’ and self-evidency to anyone who fears God, they generate the kind of certainty and motivation that comes from spiritual devotion. Therefore, American conservatism can make questions of policy as difficult to discuss rationally as questions of religion.
But why does it seem so difficult to engage the right in rational discourse in these times as opposed to other times? The problem I am describing is as old as the nation, so what is happening right now that seems to be bringing this problem to the foreground? I think the answer is simply that social change has become more rapid recently, and perhaps also because some unintended consequences, not to mention failures, of late 20th century efforts at progress have begun to be realized distinctly. The difficult reality that there is no stable or legitimately desirable past to go back to only makes the problem of irrationality, emotion, and confusion in discourse more intense, as those who desperately need such a past are unable to find one that can be grounded in the kind of facts that can serve as fixed elements in a rational discussion. The result are spectacles like popular candidates for public office who angrily defend the Constitution against liberal ‘assault’ one minute and the next minute display a shocking lack of knowledge of what the Constitution actually says, and then argue that the Constitution should be changed to more purely represent traditional American values. Some on the right are calling for theocracy, claiming that it would be a fulfillment of the founders’ intentions. It is an acute problem, even if its roots are in the nature of the United States’ origins themselves.
I can think of a second reason that the problem I have described seems particularly acute, and that is the apparent failure of the Obama administration to turn things around as many had hoped. President Obama was elected on the hope that rational policy experts who are smarter than the average Joe (and had a sophisticated understanding of things that was superior to common sense) were what the country needed in a time of multiple and overwhelming perils. The Obama administration has so far failed to bring the country back to the impossible level stability and prosperity of the Great Moderation. That, I am afraid, has turned out to be the country’s unrealistic measure of the Administration’s success. Now that the President, whose election right wing conservatives dreaded, has “failed” (despite his administration’s probably saving the economy from something much worse than we have experienced), Republicans who can claim to have gone along with liberal certainties about race and good government for years feel confident in calling for white conservatives to “take our country back.” Or, as Christine O’Donnell put it, “We’re not taking our country back; We ARE our country!”
I am hoping not. I am hoping that this country’s roots in the Enlightenment are secure enough that Americans will remember that liberalism is our own deepest tradition, that the Right will lose its credibility in its claim to being ‘more American than thou,’ as people remember that America’s traditional value above all others is to break with tradition and to self-govern with rational intent.