Why We Need Libraries and Learning*


  This may be something of a controversial opinion but I will state it any way: I love to learn. To me there are few greater joys to be experienced than going to sleep at night with a mind full of facts or feelings I hadn't woke up possessing the previous morning. Indeed, one of the most wondrous things in life is taking the time to find out a little bit more about it and, in the process, a little bit more about one's self too; knowledge leads to empathy, and empathy to love - I'm not certain there's a higher purpose to existence than that.

   In a society, and in particular under our current government, where the general consensus is that everything should be ascribed no value beyond the monetary, it seems I'm in something of a minority when it comes to estimating the worth of learning and knowledge. Many believe education should only be undertaken if it can somehow contribute fiscally to society - hence elitism about "Mickey Mouse" degrees and raised eyebrows over the decision to pursue non-vocational BAs. When universities, due to coalition government ruling, were given the option of raising tuition fees up to £9k per year, many did so immediately and no longer felt the need to teach a variety of subjects which were unable to compete financially with more popular, established degrees. London Met, for example, axed two thirds of their courses.

   The New Statesman, perhaps the most important regular publication in Britain today, printed an article just two years ago explaining why this approach to education is short-sighted. It seems that current thinking means education has become, as Josh White wrote in his article, separated from knowledge and is traded in the most vulgar of terms; education is becoming increasingly narrow and, simultaneously, ultimately a commodity. It's something which can be purchased and, in real terms, cashed in at a later date. Learning for learning's sake is almost a thing of the past - ironically enough, it's only the super-rich, and the hereditary super-rich, who have the option to pursue this. Cultural achievement and fiscal reward are growing further away from each other and a chasm has opened up between the two. The general consensus is this: facts and skills are not worth learning unless they can recoup money. It's a pathetic and sad indictment of a society with a paucity of imagination, of wonder in their soul.

    Stewart Lee, the stand-up comedian and one of the definitive individuals in my life in terms of shaping my world-view, has spoken (and written) previously of his own encounters with this approach to education. During the 1980s, whilst on scholarship at Oxford, Margaret Thatcher came to visit campus and asked one student what subject she was reading. Upon hearing the reply - "Norse Literature" - Thatcher condescendingly retorted: "What a luxury!" In many people's eyes, including that of Thatcher and the current government, seeking to enrich and ennoble ourselves via the pursuit of understanding the cultures, histories and languages of others is bereft and bankrupt. Whilst doing so may lead to more rounded individuals, or one's with viewpoints that don't necessarily fit into the narrow frameworks of capitalist machinery, their pursuit of knowledge and sense of self is deemed worthless, or worse, if instant, physical fiscal returns aren't shown.

   The constant war on art and culture by the conservative end of the political spectrum sadly does not stop at higher education. Funding for arts and museums have been slashed, despite their community and cultural worth, and even more worryingly is the continual spate of library closures across the country. It reflects poorly on a government who will stop at nothing to economise everything, even the health of it's citizens, that they will try and tear away every last thing that helps make community-life cohesive and to remove the right to knowledge from it's people unless they can afford it.

   A man who is widely considered as amongst the most intelligent to ever live, Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
"I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time."

   The days in which Mr Jefferson's logic and rhetoric were valued have begun to recede in favour of a never-ending and avaricious, ultimately self-defeating, pursuit of capital. As such, knowledge and education will become increasingly under threat - something which ultimately affects our liberty. Whilst we still can, I implore each and every one of you to go to your local museums and look around for free, visit your local library and check out books on any subject... for free! If you're lucky enough to live in the capital city visit The British Library (surely one of our nation's greatest prides and home to some of the best exhibitions in London). Every day, do something to capitalise on the opportunities we have and never forget that learning, and self-improvement, is much more than a "luxury" - it should be a right.

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4 comments

  1. I so completely and utterly agree with everything you've said. In my book, there is no such thing as a degree which is 'mickey mouse' because afterall all jobs seem to require you to have a degree these days, and if your chosen field is something that is less traditional and more practical, then it makes sense to have hands on experience of say, operating a camera, than being able to wax lyrical on a subject which has no practical applicance to your career ambitions.
    Libraries are things of beauty to me, and I always get some sense of calm and inspiration when I'm in one...both academic and public libraries are such fountains of all types of wonders, and in particular to public ones, we should fight to keep them open.
    Basically just wanted to say how much I adore this post. Serious love for it.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment!
      This is not the type of post I write regularly so its wonderful to get some great feedback on it. It means a lot.

      Libraries are one of the few things I, as a humanist and agnostic, consider sacred. I think all communities should have access to free knowledge (in the form of libraries or museums) and it really helps social cohesion.

      Agree re: degrees - they can be practical (like you mentioned camera operating) or they can be, in the grand scheme of things, entirely impractical too. and both are wonderful. on a day to day basis being able to quote from A Tale of Two Cities might not lead straight to a vocation.. but in appreciation of art it can help lateral thinking techniques. teaching people to be free in their thoughts and their cerebral working is a wonderful thing!

      I think boxing everyone into the a pattern where they got taught just to fulfill a function, solely to make money is reductive of what we can all be.

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  2. Fantastic post Kieron. It's funny as I had an extensive conversation with someone at work yesterday about learning and the power of knowledge when it comes to self-development and evolvement. Really enjoyed this!

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    1. Ah peculiar timing! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks, as always, for dropping by!

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