October 2009 Archives
I went to a library book sale not long ago and it made me melancholy. The opportunity to browse over used books usually fills me with a quiet glee for the treasures I might find there. I’m almost always rewarded with one or two books I’ve been looking for that I like to think have been waiting for me.
I constrain myself by several rules so that I’m not simply warehousing more books. First, no hardbacks unless they’re cheaper than the paperback edition. Second, only buy what can be clutched in one hand. And finally, keep the total under $10. Having fulfilled the conditions and dutifully heading toward the cash register, I paused near a rolling cart full of books of educational theory, sociology, and psychologies of human development. That’s when the melancholy crept up on me.
A bit of context might help to explain this condition. I grew up on college campuses because my guardians, my grandparents, were teachers and librarians. I spent countless hours as a child in libraries, sitting cross-legged in a quiet corner poring over anything I found that intrigued me. In the late afternoon sun dropping in slant-wise between the stacks of books I could find geography, literature, religion, psychology, myth, history, economics, political science and physics. All these books! All these authors! These were their lifeworks, their precious ideas, concepts they had been exhilarated by and had inspired others with. And now they were dead and their books sat, illuminated by the afternoon sun, catching the dust motes that drifted in the shafts of light. Occasionally, a student would wander through without pausing to read the titles or even to glance up. I wondered if the spirits of those books ever longed to take flight off the shelves, find themselves opened and breathing again, to hear the buzz of ideas and feel the bracing surge of excitement as their pages were smoothed.
So when I see these books for sale it’s a reminder that discovery does not wait, will not be fettered, and all our ideas are conditional. What is the shelf life of these ideas and interpretations? Fifty years? Twenty? In an online conference recently a presenter noted that knowledge in some areas becomes obsolete in 18 months. By the time computer science majors graduate from college, assuming they do so in four years, the information they began with will have been surpassed several times.
And so, like Andrew Marvell, that impatient prelate from the 17th century, I feel time’s wingéd chariot at my back. Maybe it’s because having cleared the year-50 hurdle seven years ago my horizon line is beginning to appear faintly through the fog ahead. Maybe it’s because I treasure the wisdom of the ages and wince when it’s lightly passed over or simply dismissed with a blank look. Or maybe I find myself suffering from vertigo on this bridge to the indefinite future where knowledge and information appear without effort on my computer or iPhone screen.
Shouldn’t we rejoice that the drudgery of gathering facts, the slow accumulation of lines of thought, the tedious totting up of countless experiments has been sloughed off like a snake skin? Why would we want to return to card catalogues, IBM Selectrics, slide rules and protractors when we can move directly to opinion? And opinion is the dominant viral agent in our biosphere. Once released it circles the globe in minutes, leaping effortlessly across borders of race, gender, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, and status. We hear its voice, tinny, sharp, brittle and shrill; indeed, its very name is Twitter, the meaningless chatter that hums through our culture day and night.
But there’s no reason to think this is the twilight of Western Culture. A few million Tweets from teenagers aren’t going to blow the lights out in libraries across the country. One need only listen to the most popular talk shows and read the comments following an op-ed piece or a music review to realize that it’s adults in this country who have cornered the market on vicious and predatory opinion making. Blaming the generational divide for the triteness of popular culture is to ignore the fact that those with the most strident voices usually have the least to say of substance.
No, gentle reader, what found me sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought there in the library was the sense that opinion and the manufacture of it is rushing outward at the speed of light, while the wisdom of thoughtful women and men is dropping like stones to the bottom of the sea—and I wonder if we are teaching our students how to dive.
To change up the locus of attention in conclusion: Andrew Marvell, in his colorful and sensuous phrases, was urging his coy mistress to give in to the sweetness of love before old age dimmed their eyes and their ardor. Surely we can do no less than to be the lovers of wisdom—philosophia—in our classrooms and laboratories.