Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Library Critics in the Equality State

Despite the immense popularity of public libraries and the broad support they usually get in the community, there are always some naysayers. This week’s naysayer is in Wyoming, and he really doesn’t want to pay more taxes to support libraries or education.

Not that I don’t sympathize. I don’t want to pay any more taxes, either. It’s when the reasons why we shouldn’t fund libraries or education are so misguided and uninformed that I’m compelled to respond.

Like this confused statement: “The library is fine as it is. Traditional libraries are becoming obsolete with the growth of digital books and Internet.”

So is the library fine as it is, or is it becoming obsolete? I don’t think it can be both. Someone is confused.

And then there’s the old “libraries are obsolete” canard. If they’re obsolete, why do so many people use them? A question for the ages, I suppose.

But then it gets better, and we get a glimpse into the weird nostalgic fantasy world where things were all rosy back in the day, and we should now go “back to basics.” Whenever someone uses that phrase, I usually stop listening, because the “basics” were usually either bad or nonexistent.

Then we’re given what is loosely called a “thought”:

Let’s go back to mastering mathematics, (good enough to put man on the moon), reading, science (earth, human, biology facts), government (local, state and U.S.), finance like counting back change and balancing a checkbook) and writing and penmanship. Today’s kids would be in great shape if they were educated the way we were back before any Department of Education or National Education Association.

Since I have an Internet connection in my obsolete library, I can do a little research.

Off the top of your head, do you know when the National Education Association was founded? I didn’t, so I looked it up. 1857.

What about the Department of Education? That one I knew. President Carter founded it as a cabinet level department in 1979.

But wait! He founded it by splitting it off from the Department of Health Education, and Welfare. Do you know when that was founded? 1953.

And did the Department of HHS emerge from nowhere? Since you can probably see where this is going, you might answer no, and you’d be right. It grew out of the Federal Security Agency, founded in 1939 with an Office of Education as one of its components.

And what about those basics, like math “good enough to put a man on the moon.” Why did we have math education that good?

Well, it might have something to do with the National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958 after Sputnik. The “NDEA included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training.”

Oh my, it’s almost like the Federal government was spending massive amounts of tax money improving education for everyone, because prior to that math education kinda sucked.

Math has never been an American passion, which is why until then we got our mathematicians from Europe, just as now we get them from Asia.

I looked up the writer of that letter to the editor. He’s 58, which means he was born around 1956, which means by the time he started school, the NEA, the Department of HHS, and the NDEA were all in effect. The math and science education he got was subsidized and promoted by the U.S. government. He probably just didn’t know that.

But it gets worse!

Graduation rates, low test scores for reading and math and high school graduates barely able to read are proof. Despite creating the Department of Education, more money, new standards, etc., we are failing to educate.

We sure are. Or are we? Let’s look at some statistics on that.

According to Census data, in 1940, a little less than 40% of Americans 25-29 years old had a high school education or better. By 2013, it was 88%.

It’s possible that a higher percentage of the people who finish high school can’t read as well as in 1940, but in sheer numbers and rates, high school education has broadened dramatically, so probably more people and a greater percentage of the population are better educated than Americans were in 1940.

So judged by an ideal where everyone at least finishes high school with perfect reading comprehension, we’re failing. Judged by historical standards, high school education is a roaring success.

I’m not saying whatever bond measure people are trying to pass in Wyoming is a good idea. I’m merely saying that every argument against it this guy’s using is ridiculous.

And penmanship? Seriously? Teaching that is going to make America strong again?



  1. Cranky says:

    You’d be surprised at how many people in the community use “But you don’t even teach cursive anymore!” as an example of the failing state of modern education.

  2. spencer says:

    I think one can be better served presenting the fact that test scores have remained static since the 1970’s, but the amount of money spent on education has skyrocketed. Spending more, one can conclude, is not solving the “problem.” However, the problem might not even be a problem at all when one looks at the metrics used by those making the claim.

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      Since the 1970s, more literature has been published, more science has been discovered, and more history has happened [citation needed]. However, students are still given the same amount of time to learn this expanded body of scholastic material.

      Therefore, the cost of knowing stuff will naturally rise so long as the amount of stuff that needs knowing rises and the time allotted to know stuff remains static. Clearly, there is some mechanism of diminishing returns whereby each additional dollar spent on knowing stuff provides less stuff known.

      Logically, at some point the rate of return on additional funding will become intolerably low, and we will be forced to start adding additional years to high school to accommodate the new stuff that needs knowing.

      The good news is that eventually we won’t have to put up with 58-year-old tax cranks at all, because they’ll all still be in high school. And nobody needs to listen to what high school students think about public policy.

    • anonymous says:

      Although it’s true that since the 40s, the total amount spent on education has risen, adjusted for inflation, so has the pool of students we are educating through 12th grade. Yes, the cost of k-12 education has doubled or tripled since the 40s. But the pool of students educated as doubled or tripled, and we are teaching far more students with disabilities and low SES through high school today. Much of our current pool are far more expensive to serve with equal opportunity and expectations of performance. Want to lower the cost of education and raise the bar? Take us back to the 1940 pool of students and leave the rest behind.

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