Despite these appearance, libraries — real ones concerned with guarding and curating knowledge — remain crucial to free and open societies, and not simply because their traditional services within academia, from curation to preservation to research, remain in high demand by scholars. More broadly, they crucially complement the Web in its highest aspirations: to provide unfettered access to knowledge, and to link authors and readers in new ways. Here’s why.
First, information may be easy to copy, but it’s also easy to poison and destroy. The Web is a distributed marvel: click on any link on a page and you’ll instantly be able to see to what it refers, whether it’s offered by the author of the page you’re already reading, or somewhere on the other side of the world, by a different person writing at a different time for a different purpose. That the act of citation and linkage could be made so easy to forge and to follow, and accessible to anyone with a Web browser rather than special patron privileges, is revolutionary.
But the very characteristics that make the distributed Net so powerful overall also make it dicey in any given use. Links rot; sources evaporate. The anarchic Web loses some luster every time that something an author meant to share turns out to be a 404-not-found error.
A better way to compare public and private would be to consider the difference between public roads and toll roads. Some toll roads are owned and operated by state governments, and some by the private sector. But does the driver care who owns the road? I doubt it; the important thing is whether the road is free and open to all, or whether it can be used only by those who can afford to drive on it. The same is true of public and private universities: a university is “public” only if those who need to use it can do so.
In this sense, it seems to me that the malaise that afflicts our public universities is not really about about dollars and cents. If this country can build the world’s largest military and fight open-ended wars in multiple theaters across the globe, it can find a way to pay for public education, as it once did, in living memory. But doing so has ceased being a real priority. Affordable “public education” is no longer something we expect, demand or take for granted; to argue that public education should be free makes you sound like an absurd and unrealistic utopian. Meanwhile, we take it for granted that roads should be free to drive on, a toll-road here or there not withstanding. You provide the car and the gas; the state provides the road.
This used to be how we thought about our public universities, before they became exorbitant toll roads: if you had the grades and the ambition, there was a classroom open to you. But if every road was a toll road, no one would expect to drive for free. If every road was a toll road, the very idea that the government would build and maintain a massive system of roads and highways — and then let anyone use it (for free!) — would seem fantastical, ridiculous, even perverse. Anyone expecting the right to drive anywhere they pleased, for free, would be branded a utopian, a socialist, a deluded and soft-hearted liberal demanding a free lunch. That’s the world we live in when it comes to highways: when the roads that drive our economy and make modern life possible get too crowded or too congested, we expect the state to build new roads. When the old roads wear out, they are re-paved; when a tree or a landslide obstructs a thoroughfare, the state clears the way. When there are not enough classrooms, on the other hand, the state no longer builds new universities; it simply charges more.
Wait, what? Now, I’m really offended.
Universities are using big data to determine which students they admit will do well—and which they need to do early intervention for, based on factors like whether their parents are getting divorced and how many hours a week they work off campus. Cool or creepy? I examine for Fast Company.
Thousands of teachers marched to protest against education reform recently approved by Mexico’s Congress.
The Senate bill regulates tests that President Enrique Pena Nieto says teachers should take. New teachers could lose their teaching jobs if they fail. The Lower House approved the bill on Sunday.
[Photo: REUTERS/Henry Romero]