The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part I of III)

Nothing consistent about this blog, I know...

In this first post, we will discuss these questions as regards libraries in general, but before we go there, I will talk about the library of which I am a part.  This, however, involves talking about the institution of which I am a part: Concordia University in St. Paul, whose mission it is to “prepare students for thoughtful and informed living, for dedicated service to God and humanity, for enlightened care of God's creation, all within the context of the Christian Gospel”.

In his book, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Education, Tom Christensen says “Education in a Lutheran college or university should be surprisingly bold, open, multidimensional, challenging, experimental, diverse, and engaging; never frightened, closed, authoritarian, sanitized, and defensive.” (p. 139)

I agree in full with Christensen – this is not something we want.  We want rather a place where conversation flows freely – though I think never apart from informed and orthodox Christian teachers guiding – or at the very least being a part of – that conversation.  Even if swimming into such waters may indeed present a danger to souls in this or that occasion, I think here of how the father of the prodigal son, when he thinks the time is right, lets him “go free”.  Several characters of the Bible, not least the Apostle Paul, were familiar with and valued the learning of their pagan neighbors.  Further, if we would love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind – and our neighbors as ourselves – I suggest that there is indeed some risk that goes along with this.  

First of all, as regards libraries, I am confident we can say this: just as there is no such thing as absolutely complete academic freedom in any university, there is also no such thing as libraries that don’t practice censorship.  Now, when it comes to some kinds of libraries, I am actually a proponent of limited forms of conscious censorship (that is another blog post, but I agree with much of what this man says here).  Further, of course there is also that indirect form of censorship that takes place every time a library decides to either “weed” or develop their collection - according to the mission statement(s) it is directed by.  

 That said, there is this ideal that librarians tend to have about how extensive the collection should be – the works that should be available to us (an ideal, that thanks to interlibrary loan, is in large part attainable).  I will confess that one of the reasons becoming a librarian appealed to me is because I liked the idea of trying to “organize the world’s knowledge” (with the purpose of making it easily findable for others of course!)  I remember the first time discovering a “subject browse” list in a library catalog – I fell in love with the sheer Enlightenment-style audacity of its comprehensiveness.  As I am now one who helps to create that catalog, perhaps this was “cataloger predestination”.

In any case, at this point let us talk about libraries more in terms of ideals – collections that, as much as possible, are comprehensive, making serious efforts to collect not only works that have been highly influential in the world, but also all educated views on all topics that anyone finds to be important and interesting.  I am not excluding a great fiction collection from our ideal library, but at this point am thinking primarily in terms of non-fiction.   To that end, I do not think there is any better place to start than librarian-philosopher Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s provocative article “Libraries as Indoctrination Mills”.

First, regarding American colleges, Bivens-Tatum says they indoctrinate students “into methods for how they should form beliefs about the world”.  He claims that:

“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.”

Regarding libraries, he says:

“Academic library collections are designed to support critical thinking, skepticism about the known, and curiosity about the unknown… we [challenge] 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.

…Reason, analysis, evidence, critical thinking, and temperate debate: these are all good things indifferent to political or religious beliefs… If those are bad things, there’s little purpose to universities or academic libraries.”

I appreciate Wayne Bivens-Tatum as a philosopher and deep thinker when it comes to libraries and their role.  He is, after all, also the author of what I consider a very informative work of scholarship, “Libraries and the Enlightenment”. 

That said, there is much room to question some of what he says.  My first point would be note that there is biblical warrant for many of the “Enlightenment values” he espouses (see p. 190) – there is, after all, a good reason why so many Christians went along with the “Enlightenment program” he discusses in its early stages.  Second, note for example the phenomenon of Calvin College, a Christian college of the Dutch Reformed persuasion.  Calvin is well-known for its “many noted writers, poets, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and teachers” (Benne, Robert, Quality With Soul, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 69).  And yet, at Calvin College, they explicitly instruct students that belief in God is a basic belief – meaning that it is a belief one argues from and not one we argue to.  For world-renowned Calvin professor, Alvin Plantiga, St. Augustine’s statement about “faith seeking understanding” – which Bivens-Tatum is critical of – makes perfect sense.  Belief in God is rational, he argues, even though it is a logical error to give reasons for it* (Christenson, Tom, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, p. 95).

We’ll explore the issue of religious faith, knowledge, and “neutrality” more in the next post in this series (Monday)