Where is the seed-bed, the nursery, the seminarium for nurturing an informed citizenry? Some might think it is found in the debating halls most recently on display or in the post-debate spin rooms of punditry. Others might look for it on the editorial pages of our great national newspapers. Some, more corrupt in their thinking, might believe it is found in that great wasteland known as talk radio. And still others might think, with some small hope, that the source lies within the classrooms of our distinguished colleges and universities. The latter might be closest to the truth, but for me the hope for an informed citizenry is found in the hearts and minds of our youngest children, their teachers, and—should our children be so fortunate—school librarians and media specialists. It is here, in the earliest grades, that the greatest public good will be found “in providing tools for future operation.”
Primary teachers and librarians are on the front lines of the Republic. Unfortunately—at least for our librarians—they are some of the first—along with teachers of art or music—to be sacrificed when school districts face faltering public support, a shrinking tax base, economic constrictions, or indifferent communities. I found myself wondering, as I watched last night’s presidential debate (and the inevitable commentary, tweets, and memes that followed)—where did these folks go to school? Where did they learn their manners? Is discourtesy or insolence the new norm? Did they ever, in their youth, experience the guiding light of a school librarian or social studies teacher, one who impressed “their minds with useful facts and good principles?” If last night was any indication, then the lesson has been lost and we have nothing but grief to look forward to.
If this is a bit of a rant, so be it. What I’m looking for—what should be planted at an early age—is the capacity to sort through multiple channels of information, the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the patience to let ideas and thoughts stew and simmer for a bit, before any pronouncements or assertions are made. What I’m looking for is a civic exegesis, hermeneutic, or midrash that gives us the freedom to arrive at informed opinions without the press of incessant cultural chatter that demands immediate answers and instant gratification. Or, if truly pressed for time, I’m looking for a citizen quick on their feet and nimble of mind. I’m looking for slow-cooked ideas, robust in character, able to stand up to any fast-food thought that attempts to pass for informed conversation and debate. I want a young mind, nurtured by caring teachers and librarians, to see and understand the progression of thought from information to knowledge to understanding and, finally, wisdom.
Long ago I was introduced to the wisdom of the ages by a school librarian. I have been searching my memory for her name (and asked for help from the school district, hoping they would prompt my cloudy recollections, alas to no avail). Let me call her, for the moment, “Mrs. L.” Even in her anonymity she remains one of my heroes. I was somewhere between the fourth and sixth grades when she asked me to be a student assistant. My job was to help check out books, shelve those books that were returned, keep the school library neat and tidy, and help out in any other way needed. In the course of time I was introduced to a number of authors. I was not a voracious reader but rather a nibbler. I gravitated towards the picture books and mysteries. Every now and then I picked up a work of non-fiction or a biography. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of this—along with the Tab books and Weekly Readers that came to the classroom—created a civil atmosphere, a respect for learning, and fuel for my curiosity. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if “Mrs. L.” had not crossed my path, if the school library did not exist, if the world of ideas was diminished or hidden because my school district could not afford such “luxuries.” Our school librarians deserve all the support we can give them. Remember that when you go into the voting booth in November, especially if an initiative is present on the ballot that impacts public education in your community. We need to provide the tools for future operation.