There’s Just Some Stuff Students SHOULD Know: Some Thoughts on Dewey on Education with Reference to Library Instruction

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.

Here’s why.

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?

Good question.

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!



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, Quotes

3 responses to “There’s Just Some Stuff Students SHOULD Know: Some Thoughts on Dewey on Education with Reference to Library Instruction

  1. Paul Hrycaj

    Here are a couple of thoughts (maybe half-baked) that I have in reaction to your post: (1) We don’t live in intellectual or social isolation. We have a common intellectual heritage and environment, and for students to be able to negotiate this and to interact meaningfully with others, there may be some things that they (gasp!) should know. If they know these things (e.g. about world history, mathematics, science, literature), they may be in a better place to intellectually interact with others and to pursue their own intellectual interests. (2) While some students are motivated by well-formed interests, some might only have poorly formed interests. Some may need guidance even in developing some basic intellectual interests, by instructors who can say, ““Here are some things that have engaged and interested people for centuries, and which they have said are important and have changed their lives for the better. Maybe you will find them so, too.” I think this is at least possible. I’m skeptical about this idea that students have these strong, well-formed interests that we need to make the foundation of all of our teaching.

  2. Kevin Michael Klipfel

    HI Paul,

    Thanks for your comment.

    A couple quick thoughts:

    Your (1) seems to me as just a restatement of The Objective Importance View rather than an actual argument.

    “If they know these things (e.g. about world history, mathematics, science, literature), they may be in a better place to intellectually interact with others and to pursue their own intellectual interests.”

    And this seems to have this exactly backward to me: the Deweyan idea has us starting with their interests and helping them see how these things might further the things that they want to know about.

    I think (2) is interesting and a natural part of the “authentic engagement” view.

    For example, in a Deweyan spirit, we have contemporary educational psychologists saying things like:

    “the primary task of the teacher is to try to understand their students’ authentic interests and goals, and then help students to understand the connection between their personal goals and interests and schoolwork. In addition, teachers may also find or develop tasks that fit their students’ interests. When students do not have clear personal interests and goals, teachers may assist them in developing such interests and goals.”


    • Paul Hrycaj

      Thanks for the article, Kevin; I’ll give it a read. But I’m not sure the quotation you give supports your “primacy of the students’ interests” view. The first sentence makes it sound like there is this prior notion of “schoolwork” (maybe what the student “should” know!) and it is the instructor’s job to show how the student’s interests connect with schoolwork. It seems that based on this, the instructor’s job is to work out an accommodation between schoolwork and the students interests, which is different from starting with the students interests and then building from there. But I may change my view on this after I read the article.

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