Friday, July 2, 2010

Higher Education: Sanctuary or Superstore?

Limenitis arthemis, a.k.a Red-spotted Purple butterfly, see previously. The above lacked spots.

I'm still reading Why We Buy and enjoying it, but I've run into an apparent hitch when I go to apply some of the ideas to libraryland: The usability research discussed in the book supports goals having to do with increasing buying and selling in retail environments.

Does it benefit academic libraries to behave as though we are competing for customers in a marketplace? Libraries would not compete with each other, presumably, but with other sources for scholarly information. We have already lost the war if we are hoping to compete with google, for example.

Though not a true business, higher education is not free, and it sometimes seems that patrons expect the same kind of treatment from a college as they would if they purchased a cruise. There are a number of problems with seeing those two expenditures as equivalent.

This is not to say that libraries should make services and spaces inhospitable, but that a tendency to focus on all-inclusive service encourages those being served to avoid independent thinking, action, and exploration. These last form the basis of academic inquiry. Am I wrong in thinking that inquiry is the heart of higher education? (If this sounds familiar, I've wrestled before with providing service via instant gratification or via a lesson with more enduring value.)

The library is not the only sector in higher education being influenced by ideas from the business world -- I've noticed many students approaching their classes with a transactional mentality. They register and pay for a class, and then seem to carry to their instructor the sentiment "I have paid for you to teach me X subject. Here I am, so if I don't learn X subject and get an A in the class, it is your fault." This is along the path toward getting a job, for which a degree is a requirement. If this perception does exist, shouldn't we in higher education be working to gently correct it, rather than encouraging it?

Back in library school I myself noticed the irony of paying someone to assign me to do lifelike work, and this is one of the limitations of skills-based education. Learning how to do a specific task equips you to do a certain thing very well, but it does not encourage independent, flexible, or creative thinking.

I am not alone in these concerns. A lot of my reading about higher education recently has been the irreverent Margaret Soltan at her blog University Diaries. Consistently skeptical of the intersection between money and education, one post in particular this week asks questions similar to the ones I've raised above.

I also happen to be reading the novel The Pillars of the Earth at the moment, which concerns the psychology behind building medieval cathedrals. I notice that certain monastic ideals are surprisingly familiar in their emphasis on a higher purpose excused from commercial life. (Symbolically, the grounds of college where I work were once a seminary.)

Perhaps nowhere else is the tension between the commercial and the non-commercial more overt than at a community college, where extremely practical education (skills training) sits side by side with more traditional education (arts and sciences). Both of these directions in secondary education have fervent constituents, and they both rely on funding and support from the local community, but their attitudes toward the 'real world' are strikingly different.

I'm afraid I fall with the monks on this issue, but I'm not confident I'm on the winning side.

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