Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"Stacks' Appeal"

From "Stacks' Appeal," by "Thomas H. Benton" ( a pseudonym):

What does it mean when the University of Texas at Austin removes nearly all of the books from its undergraduate library to make room for coffee bars, computer terminals, and lounge chairs? What are students in those "learning commons" being taught that is qualitatively better than what they learned in traditional libraries?

I think the absence of books confirms the disposition to regard them as irrelevant. Many entering students come from nearly book-free homes. Many have not read a single book all the way through; they are instead trained to surf and skim. Teachers increasingly find it difficult to get students to consult printed materials, and yet we are making those materials even harder to obtain. Online journal articles are suitable for searching and extraction, but how conducive is a computer for reading a novel?

I also suspect that retrieval of books in the context of food service and roving helpers inculcates in students a disturbing combination of passivity and entitlement, as if they are diners in a fancy restaurant rather than students doing their homework. The "learning commons" seems consistent with the consumerist model of education that we all recognize: "I deserve an 'A' because I'm paying a lot of money to come here (even if I spend all my time playing video games and hanging out at the new campus fitness center)."
You can read the essay, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, here. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

comments: 1

Stefan Hagemann said...

Upon reading “Thomas Benton’s” essay, my first thought was of an actual book. I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a novel set in the highly recognizable near-future, and in it, the main character, a “word person” called Jimmy/Snowman works for awhile as a student at a lousy university (ironically named Martha Graham; motto: “our students graduate with marketable skills”). His job involves going through the stacks to select those books that ought to be saved electronically—those that don’t make the cut will be destroyed—but he’s soon fired because he can’t bear to throw any of them away. It’s one of the myriad ways that we see Jimmy as a lone figure, “kicking against the pricks” as Pound might put it. Everyone else in the novel has made the transition away from the printed word and language itself is regarded wholly pragmatically and without any intrinsic value or beauty. Characters aren’t dismissive or hostile toward books; they simply don’t think of them at all. Atwood is vague about the exact year in which the story is set, but familiar references—Osama Bin Laden becomes a figure in a popular video game—suggest it is only a decade or so away. Thus, I think “Benton” is right to worry, and I think he’s right as well to connect the trend toward revamped libraries (many colleges and universities don’t even call them that any more) with consumerism. What else are administrators up to other than making book depositories look more like Barnes and Nobles or Borders?