I was having a passing conversation the other day with our new library dean and another librarian at my university that all of the sudden involved me pontificating (a rare occurrence, to be sure) on the nature of education. I’m leading a project at my university where we’re creating a formal information literacy curriculum with written outcomes, modules, and assessments, and several librarians are involved in the process.
At any rate, as I said, we were talking kind of in passing after the meeting about whether there are things, objectively speaking, that “students should know.” I think this is a common view in libraries and in education. Let’s call it:
The Objective Importance View: There’s just some things an educated person should know.
This is, I think, probably uncontroversial on the face of it. After all, what the hell are we doing here, if not educating students about stuff they should know?
But here’s the thing. I actually think The Objective Importance View is false. More colloquially, I probably think it’s controlling bullshit.
What people actually seem to mean by The Objective Importance View is really this:
The Objective Importance View (Actually): There’s just some things an educated person should know, whether they want to know it or not.
And it’s precisely the whether they want to know it or not that I think is not only wrong, but actually contrary to the entire purpose of what education is.
But before getting into that, let’s consider some examples:
Suppose you think that it’s just important that students learn how to use print reference sources. Shit, educated folks have been using those sources since God knows when, how can these millennials come along and not know about these things? What a shame!
Fill in anything here, and include the “students should know this” and I will disagree with you:
Students should read more.
Students should know how to read call numbers.
Students should know the difference between scholarly and non-scholarly articles.
Now, the weird thing is, these are all things that I think it’s important for students to learn. I just don’t think they’re things that students should know.
What’s the difference?
The difference, more abstractly, is that one of these views is learner-centered and one is not, and one of them takes into account how human motivation actually works and one does not.
More concretely, here’s what I mean.
If you think that there’s just some stuff that students should know, you’re probably going to approach educating students in the library in a certain kind of way. Your focus will be on the stuff they should know: this is important, that is important, so let’s just explain this to people and move on.
What this approach misses is the fact that human beings aren’t empty vessels for you to put knowledge into. You can’t start with the stuff people should know: you have to start with the person who wants to know something. In other words, why should this person care about call numbers? What is that helping them accomplish? Ah! Now we’re being learner-centered: students have certain goals, curiosities, class assignments, and the library can help them accomplish their goals! With this slight about face, we throw out The Objective Importance View, and turn our attention toward (a) connecting with students and their interests and (b) showing them how information literacy can (c) meet them where they’re at w/r/t (a). Something like this is a view I’ve called, in my own research, “authentic engagement,” which may seem sort of obvious, until you actually consider the ubiquity of the Objective Importance View in almost all of our practices.
Earlier this morning I was in my office reading John Dewey, and came across the following passage that inspired this post:
The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results, but cannot truly be called educative. Without insight into the psychological structure and activities of the individual, the educative process will, therefore, be haphazard and arbitrary. If it chances to coincide with the child’s activity it will get a leverage; if it does not, it will result in friction, or disintegration, or arrest of the child nature.
-John Dewey, “My Pedagogical Creed,” in Dewey on Education: Selections, p. 20.
What interested me is that it’s a view that I think most of us would, on the face of it, agree with. However, it’s also clearly in opposition to The Objective Importance View: for Dewey, there’s nothing a student should know. Rather, education must connect with something a student already cares about.
The implication is that, as library educators, our goal must be to understand our students as human individuals: only then will our instruction amount to anything more than what in effect constitutes external coercion contrary to a student’s self.
As I put the point elsewhere:
[…] for student-centered academic librarians, facilitating significant learning through authentic engagement with students will be central to reference and instruction. The counselor librarian aims to authentically engage with one’s students, in the sense that an ideal informational transaction will be one in which the librarian and student meet as human beings. This requires the librarian to not only have knowledge of educational resources but to be a certain type of person, one who has a genuine desire to understand the inner world of another person. In doing so, the librarian assists students in the process of developing research questions that matter to them, using their informational skills to help students find information they care about.
Something to think about!