April 15, 2014

Libraries as Indoctrination Mills | Peer to Peer Review

Back when he was vowing never to drop out of the Republican presidential primary race, but before he conceded he would not be the rock upon which the Republican nomination was built and dropped out anyway, Rick Santorum claimed that American colleges were “indoctrination mills.”

This sort of accusation is often made by right-wing critics of higher education. The argument, such as it is, seems to be: 1) most college professors are leftists; 2) those leftist professors are teaching students; therefore 3) the leftist professors are teaching students to be leftists.

The accusation led one conservative academic to point out there’s no evidence to support the accusation that colleges are indoctrinating students into leftism, but it’s possible that the right-wing critics of higher education aren’t interested in evidence. The conservative academic responded to Santorum as if he were merely parroting the conventional right-wing wisdom regarding colleges and their hostility to conservatives. However, he conflated religion with politics. Santorum wasn’t just talking about politics. He was talking about religion.

Santorum claimed that colleges are mills to indoctrinate students into a secular world view, and he was right, despite all the pundits’ smirking ridicule. They are, and so are the libraries that support them. Though not indoctrinating students into a set of beliefs about the world, they are indoctrinating them into methods for how they should form beliefs about the world, and those methods are indifferent at best to religious belief. These methods form a doctrine (from the Latin for “teaching”), and it is one of the byproducts of a liberal education.

The motivation for scholarship and teaching is to investigate any topic of interest and follow the investigation wherever the evidence leads. It doesn’t matter if the evidence contradicts some religious authority. In the battle between reasoned argument and the unsupported claims of a religious text, reason wins, at least in the academy. One goal of a college education is to indoctrinate students to believe that this method of scholarship is a good thing.

The indoctrination sometimes plays itself out in college writing courses, which have recently been described as a “well-organized, systematic, and dedicated … to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity.” They are also places where students learn that religious texts have no more authority than any other texts, religious leaders have less authority than rigorous scholars, and all are subject to reasoned analysis and interpretation.

Libraries also play their part. Traditionally, academic libraries collected, organized, preserved, and disseminated the results of research, but as research instruction has increased, academic librarians also participate in the educational goal of helping students evaluate the information available through the library.

Academic library collections are designed to support critical thinking, skepticism about the known, and curiosity about the unknown. We develop collections that allow interested students to explore a topic from every perspective, and then we encourage them to use a method of critical analysis to detect bias. However, the one bias that method can’t detect is the bias towards critical thinking and skepticism.

According to the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, among other things “an information literate individual is able to:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base”

Evaluating information and its sources critically and incorporating selected information into one’s knowledge base—who could possibly find fault with that?  We undermine cultish indoctrination by challenging students to think critically about what they read and see, to ask hard questions: Who claims that? How do they know? What do others say? What are the arguments and evidence on every side? These seem like harmless questions designed to provoke skepticism and critical thinking, harmless, that is, until you realize skepticism and critical thinking are not the foundations upon which religions are built.

This is not to say that religious faith can’t survive a regime of critical thinking and skepticism, only that critical thinking and skepticism are rarely the paths to religious faith. That’s why the traditional definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding,” with philosophy as the “handmaiden of theology.” Faith, as the Bible tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Belief comes first, reason after.

But that’s not how academic scholarship works (at least not ideally). Hoping something exists doesn’t make it so; not seeing something isn’t proof it exists. Quite the contrary. Having no publicly available evidence to support a statement is prima facie proof that statement is false. The burden of proof is on the person without evidence, not the skeptic.

Every time professors refuse to accept religious proclamation or faith as suitable academic evidence on topics having nothing to do with religion, and every time librarians challenge students to critically examine the information they have found, they are indoctrinating students, not to a substance, but to a method.

Thus, alongside the institutions they serve, academic libraries are also indoctrination mills, their mission to indoctrinate students into a mode of thinking that challenges unproven assertions, examines evidence in the light of reason, and changes beliefs depending on where the evidence leads. This should be the result of a liberal education, but it’s not exclusive to the education of liberals. It might not undermine religious faith (though it might), but it is indifferent to faith.

Instead of resisting popular right-wing criticism regarding indoctrination, we should embrace it, while making it very clear what doctrines are being taught. Reason, analysis, evidence, critical thinking, and temperate debate: these are all good things indifferent to political or religious beliefs. Left or right, faithful or agnostic, the reasoned method of academic discourse allows us to communicate with each other peacefully and to further human knowledge. If those are bad things, there’s little purpose to universities or academic libraries.

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Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. A critique from the left:

    Many people care about the substance (communicate with each other peacefully and to further human knowledge) of the methods (reason, analysis, evidence, critical thinking, and temperate debate).

    At the same time, these methods have been used for some pretty ugly ends because the ability to participate in these kinds of discourses have always rested in the hands of the privileged and people in a position of authority. Here’s some recent things that come to mind:

    http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/meritocracy-and-measurement-myths/

    http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/jeff-brouws-%E2%80%9Cit-don%E2%80%99t-exist-the-impact-of-sprawl-and-suburban-build-out-on-inner-city-america-2009.html

    I’d argue that there’s substance to the method, and the supposed “indifference” comes across as disrespectful to those inclined to disagree with you, specifically because they’ve been taken advantage of by people using the “method” with a very different substance than what you’ve written about here.

    “Every time professors refuse to accept religious proclamation or faith as suitable academic evidence on topics having nothing to do with religion…”

    By stopping a student from trying to use “religious proclamation or faith as suitable academic evidence on topics having nothing to do with religion” the professor is pretty much telling the student that their substance is incompatible with the professor’s (his substance, not his method, which he pretends are one and the same), and they are unwilling to try it out.

    Unless we are willing to engage case by case, it doesn’t sound like the kind of communication that will further that student’s human knowledge at all. It’d be indoctrination, and not education. That’s a completely different situation from librarians telling students to critically examine resources they come across, and I’m hesitant to conflate the two.

    • Wayne BT says:

      An interesting point about power, Joe, I’m just not sure of its relevance. What we might call the academic method isn’t inherently related to either meritocracies or the decline of urban centers. People in power can do bad things. Agreed. I just don’t see the connection to my argument here. Religion has also been used as a justification for horrifying activities, but that doesn’t mean all religions are evil, only that human beings are flawed and can justify their actions using just about anything.

      I’m also very skeptical of the claim that professors refusing to allow a religious proclamation to count as acceptable evidence in the classroom has anything to do with them being “unwilling to try it out,” if by “it” you mean using statements of religious faith as public reasons in a discussion. There are discourse communities where it is entirely appropriate for someone to say “the Bible says so” as evidence, but universities aren’t churches and that sort of “evidence” only works when everyone shares your assumptions. What should the professors’ response be? To try to understand the point of view of people who think everyone should accept a statement because their religion tells them its true? I can understand that as an approach, but the goal would be to bring students to the point where they can engage in academic discussion using methods and assumptions that aren’t just the property of those who happen to believe that particular religion.

      I’m admitting this is a sort of indoctrination, an indoctrination that makes education possible. I believe that this particular indoctrination is better than any indoctrination that says “believe this because God or a holy book or a minister tells you it’s true.”

      And I don’t think challenging beliefs in the classroom is all that different from expecting students to critically examine sources. Whether critically examining beliefs during a discussion or books you have read, It’s all leading to the same goal of temperate discourse based on reason and evidence, even if that goal is an ideal that will never completely be achieved.

  2. Barbara Fister says:

    This is great – and it’s why I feel uncomfortable when librarians claim we are duty-bound to be neutral about every possible idea. Some ideas have greater validity than others based on evidence and the kinds of methods scholars embrace. We should not just throw up our hands and say “librarians are not allowed to express any kind skepticism about anything. Ever.”

    The idea of objectivity itself is a position that we choose to take (or not).

  3. Matthew Goddard says:

    The problem with this post is that it assumes the possibility of being non-ideological.

    We can never be too often reminded that all knowledge requires reasoning from a set of assumed axioms, which are usually unacknowledged and often unnoticed. Faith is not limited to the religious. By blithely assuming that examining evidence “in the light of reason” is an unproblematic process, on the ground rules of which everyone in a wildly pluralistic culture can agree, the author betrays an epistemological naivete that I wish were more surprising, and brings his “indoctrination” much closer to the common usage.

  4. Matthew, I don’t see how I’m being naive when I’m pretty much acknowledging that the academic, or rather scientific/ rational/ academic worldview is itself a bias, and one that others don’t share, especially certain types of religious believers. I’m also not sure I “blithely assumed” anything was an unproblematic process. I was merely describing the process which assumes priority in academia. I was most certainly not assuming that there are ground rules which everyone in our “wildly pluralistic culture” can agree on. The premise of my post is that there is no general agreement in our society at large. However, there is large agreement in academia.

    One difference between the scientific worldview and the worldview of a religious system is that scientific propositions are open to falsifiability. That’s one reason I focused on method rather than substance. The assumption is that something we believe based on some evidence should be considered true until proven otherwise, with methods to examine and interpret evidence for and against that belief.

    As for the possibility of being non-ideological, I’m not sure I assume that at all. However, I do assume, and with good reason, that humans can have knowledge that is non-ideological and based on evidence that can be demonstrated to everyone, and it is capable of changing in response to counter-evidence. Scientific knowledge in itself isn’t ideological, for example, though what scientists choose to study and how that knowledge is used often is.

  5. Matthew Goddard says:

    Wayne, thanks for your thoughtful response. I think we simply disagree about whether the scientific method should remain a method or an all-encompassing “worldview”, as you put it. There are many excellent scholars on both sides of that question, of course, as with the question of the extent to which that worldview should be privileged above others, even within academic discourse.

    • Oh, I find it useful to carry a whole toolbox full of worldviews, since *none* works in every instance. It’s also instructive to compare their results. I think that a given worldview is privileged by being suited to the task at hand.

  6. That sounds like a good characterization of the disagreement. While I do think that if the scientific method constitutes a worldview, that worldview should be privileged within academia, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that it should be privileged everywhere and that it is an inappropriate way to approach some areas of life, including religion.

  7. Laura Kaftan says:

    I wonder what Rick Santorum would have to say about policy in a country like Turkey, where they prohibit religious-based education below the high school level in order to prevent the indoctrination seen in the Madrassas schools of Pakistan.

    • Laura, I think all of Santorum’s children are home-schooled, presumably with a strong religious education, so I’m assuming he would disapprove of Turkish educational policy.

    • Laura Kaftan says:

      So you think he would support strong religious education for religions other than Christianity? The Madarassas schools are a breeding ground for terrorists so the Turkish policy is an attempt to prevent indoctrination of young, vulnerable minds. Is Santorum’s view perhaps an extremely narrow, self-centered perspective that does not consider the bigger world picture along with possible negative consequences should his dreams come true?

  8. Barbara Fister says:

    In a course I teach we just read Michael Polanyi and John Ziman on how science works and what happens when it departs from being what Ziman calls “academic science.” Both authors talk about science not as a method but as a social system, one in which individuals who share disciplinary methods and agree on what makes a claim viable. What he calls “academic science” is a social practice in which individual scientists set problems the answers to which are not pre-determined. They are what they are, and the results are public knowledge. In post-academic science, the object is to produce intellectual property.

    I think what libraries do is part of the philosophical and social practice that Polanyi describes in “The Republic of Knowledge.” Our stance is not exactly scientific (though I suppose you could characterize the entire Enlightenment as a scientific movement) but it is political, and it does involve a balance of personal freedoms and public liberties with an emphasis on “public.”

    Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in The Anarchist in the Library that libraries are an embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. That may seem a limited worldview, being so tied to a Western philosophical tradition that is hardly the only one that is valuable, but these are limits I can live with. They are “liberal” in the sense of freeing, without being indifferent to the existence of different ways of approaching meaning.

  9. Ruthanne Price says:

    I just want to thank you, Wayne, for writing this so thoughtfully. I would also like to offer a hearty “Hear, Hear!” in support of the notion that we need not shrink from the “accusation” that higher education and its supporting institutions (such as the libraries) value the rigorous exercise of people’s brains.

  10. Barbara, I think you’re right. I’d characterize what academic libraries and most academics do as “scientific” in the older and broader sense of science: the creation and organization of knowledge about a subject. This is the sense in which library science is a “science.” Often this is experimentation and investigation in the natural sciences, but the social sciences and humanities have a similar goal, just with different methods.

    And I read that quote in The Anarchist in the Library when I was working on Libraries and the Enlightenment. I would argue, along with several contemporary historians, that limiting the methods and views of the Enlightenment just to a western worldview isn’t justifiable. The political values are universal, or at least universalizable. Chen Guangcheng wants the same freedom that the Enlightenment thinkers thought we all should have.

  11. Thanks, Ruthanne. Colleges should be teaching people to exercise their brains, and in particular ways. I wasn’t trying to argue anything new here, merely that libraries and the institutions they support value a certain kind of critical thinking, the kind you’d find displayed in any textbook on critical thinking, the kind writing instructors try to inculcate in students, and the kind practiced by academics in general (at least on their subjects of expertise). That’s why I don’t agree with Joe above that what I might suggest to a student about critically examining sources is any different than what an instructor might do in a classroom about critically examining ideas. I’ve done that plenty of times when teaching writing courses, and it feels pretty much the same to me.

    • wayne,

      at no point did the hypothetical instructor critically examine the idea. you stated that they should “refuse to accept”

      that’s not a critical examination.

    • Joe, the idea that, for example, the authority of a religious text has anything to say about, for example, astronomy, has already been critically examined and found wanting in the academy. Unless you don’t mean that unless every statement made in a classroom, no matter how absurd, isn’t thoroughly discussed then no critical examination has taken place.

    • wayne,

      i’m talking about the relationship between the teacher and the student, not the academy and religious institutions.

      and if you use another triple negative, the black helicopters are going to come for you ;)

  12. Aaron Sakovich says:

    I am amazed that in the few short responses posted, some of the commenters have managed to come up with so many wonderful examples of logical fallacies, including strawmen, red-herrings, and special pleadings.

    The scientific method is simply that: a method. And it is a very good method to identify reality due to its ability to self-correct. Libraries should revel in this; I too am dismayed by those who claim we must be neutral to all ideas, and fortunately, I have not come upon that often in my current position.

    If libraries are indoctrination mills, it is because they indoctrinate in education, entertainment, and interaction. I am proud to work in such a place.

    Thank you for such a wonderful and well thought out article. I especially like your closing paragraph, and fully intend to embrace the label!

  13. Wayne,

    This is why I love your writing. You are part of the reasons the “information literacy” video tutorials I make look the way they do (for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-DRaABB7mY&feature=player_embedded )

    That said, I’m coming at you from a “right-wing [theological] perspective (I’ve commented on your blog before, by the way – its *that* Nathan, if you remember me).

    “These seem like harmless questions designed to provoke skepticism and critical thinking, harmless, that is, until you realize skepticism and critical thinking are not the foundations upon which religions are built.”

    That’s true. But it doesn’t mean that some religions don’t claim to be based on evidence that all should consider and all should find persuasive. For example: http://bible.cc/acts/17-31.htm (also see verses 25 and 26 here:http://esv.scripturetext.com/acts/26.htm) I can’t speak of whether other religions have anything quite like this. If these truth claims can’t be considered solid because they are recorded in dubious historical sources or were uttered by men who were just too likely to believe in miracles, I think we also need to ask how it is we can be truly confident of any history.

    “This is not to say that religious faith can’t survive a regime of critical thinking and skepticism, only that critical thinking and skepticism are rarely the paths to religious faith.”

    Again, this is true. Many who believe do so in part because mom and dad indoctrinated them from the cradle early on (as I do with my kids) – and many never question this. That said, within Christianity, there is certainly room for measured skepticism, using the kinds of methods you have mentioned. The Apostle Paul, a religious authority who had been “set apart” by the risen Christ himself commends a congregation for testing his claims (http://bible.cc/acts/17-11.htm) – though granted, against the Scriptures.

    But human reason also takes this into consideration: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/citing-chapter-and-verse-which-scripture-is-the-right-one/

    That’s good: we all have “tribal hearts”. We know quite well that just because a fact or two doesn’t seem to fit my preconceived worldview, it doesn’t mean the whole thing necessarily needs to be discarded.

    “they are indoctrinating students, not to a substance, but to a method… It might not undermine religious faith (though it might), but it is indifferent to faith.”

    Or, I might be convinced it does lead to faith! Just because a person does not believe does not mean that unbelief is justified or that those who believe have no warrant for their belief.

    I believe God has been patient with my testing Him during times that I have been presented with evidence and argumentation, that, on the face of it, seems fatal to those presuppostional beliefs I inherited.

    Thanks Wayne – I really appreciate your take on these issues. Not to many think along these grooves.

    +Nathan

  14. “One difference between the scientific worldview and the worldview of a religious system is that scientific propositions are open to falsifiability. That’s one reason I focused on method rather than substance. The assumption is that something we believe based on some evidence should be considered true until proven otherwise, with methods to examine and interpret evidence for and against that belief.”

    Great quote. This is what I hold to as well. I know what I have yet to be shown is false.

    Regarding the first sentence, I just think about this statement from Paul: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’.”

    Ah, but what is the permissible evidence in our courtroom?

    See:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Resurrection-Jesus-Historiographical-Approach/dp/0830827196

    and

    http://www.amazon.com/Resurrection-Christian-Origins-Question-Vol/dp/0800626796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336143972&sr=8-1

    +Nathan

  15. Wayne,

    If you don’t mind, I thought that this also might be an interesting contribution to the conversation:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_book_club/features/2012/ross_douthat_s_bad_religion/bad_religion_by_ross_douthat_reviewed_liberalism_and_christianity_.html

    Why can’t more persons have conversations like that? : )

    +Nathan

  16. Nathan, thanks for commenting. I’m sometimes hesitant to speak about religion in general, or even Christianity in general, because I know there are the varied approaches you mention. The Christianity of Rick Santorum isn’t the Christianity of John MacQuarrie. The Catholicism of politically conservative Americans seems to have nothing to do with the Catholicism manifested in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which is more similar to John Rawls’ liberalism than anything from Santorum. That’s why I was trying to make the distinction between substance and method. There’s a strong tradition of rational theology from Thomas Aquinas to the present that tries to use the same methods other scholars try to use on secular subjects, and I’m aware of that. I wasn’t limiting the use of reasoned argument to secular results (even if that’s the way my own reasoning leads). And the questions you bring up are the same. What counts as evidence? What can we agree on as a framework? I believe that this approach leads to a better understanding of an issue than the common approach of shouting absolutes at people, even if it still results in disagreement.

    • Wayne,

      Thanks for the thoughts. Largely agree. The Douthat-Saletan conversation I linked to also addresses some of this.

      +Nathan

  17. Wayne,

    I believe indoctrination runs counter to critical thinking, if we indoctrinate someone in “critical thinking,” then I’d contend it’s not critical thinking we’ve indoctrinated them in.

    It’s our own understanding of it, along with all of our beliefs and politics, and since we’re in a position of authority, it’s likely to stunt any further critical thinking.

    So no, I’m not for indoctrination, not of any kind.

    • I suggest you can’t not indoctrinate someone. It comes with the territory in “education”. All teachers are not just guides, but providers of real content/ideas, even if they imagine they are not. In fact, I’d like to bring up “critical thinking” in this respect….

  18. Fair enough, Joe. Is it the traditional definition of “indoctrination,” that I was deliberately playing with a bit, bothering you? What about “enculturation” instead?

  19. Laura Kaftan says:

    I would highly recommend a new book, “Thinking fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman, for a discussion of how our brains work. We all make instant judgements, and then attempt to rationalize our ideas after we have made the judgement. I believe higher education/scientific method and indoctrination are two different methods altogether.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/books/review/thinking-fast-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html?pagewanted=all

    Two other really good new books also deal with the way our brains work: “The righteous mind” by Jonathan Haidt and “You are not so smart” by David McRaney.

  20. Sherry Rhodes says:

    I’ve really enjoyed both the column & the conversation here. Lots of food for thought. Thank you all!

  21. No matter what we call it, in order to be educated about anything you need some sort of framework to examine, interpret, and understand whatever it is you are studying in relation to what you already know, whether it’s the scientific/ academic method I was talking about here or some other framework. That framework usually isn’t called into question because without it nothing makes sense. Does inculcating that framework into students count as “indoctrination”? That might be a strong term because of its negative connotations, but there’s something similar going on. My argument was that the substance of an disagreement was of less importance in academia than the method by which disagreements are settled.

  22. Wayne,

    You say: “Every time professors refuse to accept religious proclamation or faith as suitable academic evidence on topics having nothing to do with religion, and every time librarians challenge students to critically examine the information they have found, they are indoctrinating students, not to a substance, but to a method.”

    I like the emphasis you have of focusing on evidence Wayne. It seems that the *public evidence* that we are able to find and share out in the real world should indeed have something do do with what is really real and how we live. This may very well exclude some religions from the get go (I think it does).

    That said, you don’t simply say this, but assume beforehand that there actually *can* be topics that have nothing to do with religion. That is not just “method” you are inculcating, but content.

    To say that all topics have something to do with religion does not mean that religion need be explicitly mentioned whenever said topic is discussed, but that it certainly could be, because “all truth is God’s truth” and there is no real truth and knowledge that are not of Divine origin.

    +Nathan

  23. Most young adults use college as a time to not only develop critical thinking skills but to challenge and often discard things they were MADE to do while they lived at home growing up. One of those things is often church attendance. While they might not give up their beliefs, they might not be front and center in their lives for a few years. Many young people rediscover them when they get married and/or have children. Sure some of them abandon church and religion altogether, but I doubt it’s because of their “leftist” professors. It might just be because Saturday night keg parties are more fun.

  24. I suspect lots of college students do shake off the religious beliefs of their parents, especially if those religious beliefs were especially narrow. I grew up and went to college in the deep south, and I recall plenty of smart kids rebelling against their parents’ very conservative, fundamentalist Christianity. They didn’t do this because of their professors’ leftism, though. However, rebelling against a narrow fundamentalism and abandoning all religion indefinitely are very different things.

  25. I used to think similarly about reason, critical thinking, analysis, and the scientific method, but then I studied philosophy. By the time I finished my degree I wasn’t nearly so sure about the solidity and grounding of the rationalistic/empirical approach. The mere fact of scientific replicability does not, in the minds of many philosophers, create a valid basis for belief. Some go so far as to say that there are no epistemologically sound foundations for belief at all. Paul Feyerabend in particular is famous for his suggestion that scientists and academicians would benefit from a good dose of “theoretical anarchy.” Although most don’t like to contemplate it, solipsism seems to follow from the adoption of these positions, although even that is a metaphysical assertion that cannot really be substantiated.

    The outcome for me personally was a type of ataraxian suspension of assumptions. I am forced to live my life without assuming that rational, empirical methods are more defensible than alternate means of proposition-determination, even if they do display more predictive capacity on an inferential level.

    So now I just help my patrons with what they want and keep my mouth shut.

  26. Abe,

    I think that you are the endgame of the Enlightenment unleashed from its Christian moorings, which provided the confidence in a loving Creator who provided order in the universe as well as confidence in the importance of public evidence for the revealing of truth (I know this sounds radical to many, but just read Luke chapter 1, the whole book of Acts [see 17 and 26 in particular], 1 John 1, etc, etc – the evidence on the importance of eyewitness testimony and its importance is clear – this is also the case in the Old Testament, with the importance of prophecy and miracles to confirm the true teaching). Without this, there will always be some outliers (perhaps like Wayne and a few philosophers – who rarely seem capable of capturing and holding the masses attention) who have real confidence in systematic approaches to knowledge, but for most everyone else, knowledge will simply be a practical tool for getting a good guess of how things regularly transpire in the cosmos. Nowadays, with the scientific method holding some sway, persons attempt to understand how these things can be understood (and perhaps harnessed, using math and tech as well) to help us move ever more successfully within it… but in general, persons will default to thinking that assumes life has a supernatural component, and that the gods/God/life force needs to be appeased (in other words, approaching “stuff” in a non-supernatural way that assumes mechanistic consistency falls by the wayside).

    +Nathan

  27. I can’t tell if Abe is putting us on or not. Nathan, I don’t think it really matters what the default thinking of the average person will be, at least for this discussion. I’ll grant that many, perhaps most, people have a psychological need to believe in the supernatural, and I’ll go along with Nietzsche that when the decision comes to their psychological needs and truth, so much the worse for truth. But I would still be doing a disservice to students if I suggested they examine the evidence in a scholarly debate using the intellectual framework of whatever religion they happened to profess when they arrived at school. I phrase that deliberately, because whatever religion they happen to have grown up with somehow seems to be the one most people believe to be the true one, which isn’t exactly a curious coincidence.

  28. “I would still be doing a disservice to students if I suggested they examine the evidence in a scholarly debate using the intellectual framework of whatever religion they happened to profess when they arrived at school.”

    You might want to tell them it may depend on their belief system (i.e what does their belief system say about the importance of public evidence?). I would be doing you a disservice if I suggested you examine the evidence in a scholarly debate using an intellectual framework that assumes there are some things in the world that have nothing to do with religion.

    +Nathan

  29. Robert B says:

    A thoughtful essay, Wayne.

    Bias however is also in “we develop collections that allow interested students to explore a topic from every perspective”. Really?

    Everyone has an agenda. Altruism for some, is considered selfish. Belief and value systems drive the planet whether proven legitimate or not.

    Proving [T]ruth is a rabbit hole but the academy is a better venue than the street. Librarians are not immune.

  30. Robert, my comments on collections were certainly idealistic for a given library, especially smaller libraries, but as a system of interconnected libraries, American academic libraries provide students with a very rich collection of resources on just about any topic they might want to research via interlibrary loan or some sort of consortial borrowing. Or at least that’s true of the academic libraries I’m familiar with. But there’s no perfection in either libraries or librarians.

  31. Wayne,

    Robert makes great points above. But so do you! This is one of the reasons I am passionate about libraries and free inquiry. This is what attracted me to the profession more than anything else.

    +Nathan

  32. Anyone who is interested in talking more about this topic can check out the recent post I did on our library’s blog: http://csplibrarynews.blogspot.com/2013/04/concordia-st-paul-librarian-responds-to.html

    +Nathan