Library As School

-Ned Vare

Years ago, John Holt talked about the difference between libraries and public schools — both government-run. He described the difference as largely centered on the attitude of the employees. In libraries, the attitude is ALWAYS, “How can I help you?” There is an understanding that the patron is seeking information, and the purpose of the employee is to help the patron find it. No questions asked. No mention of the patron being too young or not being dressed properly; no discussion about the appropriateness of the information or the “readiness” of the patron to learn it; no mention of testing or judging, no timetables, no hall passes, no arbitrary rules, no need to ask permission to go pee. The library attitude is benevolence and service.

Public schools, of course, do all those impertinent things, and worse. Their attitude is, “Sit down and shut up, What can you do that I can judge? How can I impose my will on you? How can I control your life? How can you fit into OUR plan?” This may not be the attitude of every employee, but it is definitely the attitude of the institution and its unions, and that’s what matters.

For a public school to be more like a library would mean big changes, such as: eliminate curricula; eliminate groupings based on age, eliminate grading, scoring, testing, sorting of patrons; eliminate rules, schedules, timetables; eliminate certification of teachers (let anyone who can, teach — it’s the learner’s choice and keep only teachers whose services are in demand by patrons; eliminate most administrators and other non-teaching personnel such as psychologists, “deans,” coordinators, lunchroom monitors, police guards. Let sports be handled by another organization, and paid for by its patrons.

Of course, whether they’re homeschooling or not, children are welcome at public libraries where they learn, early, how to use the catalog, the computers, the restroom, the services of the friendly, respectful, courteous employees, and smiling happily go about their learning in their own ways. What would turn such a facility into a “school” would simply be to have teacher/guides available to offer the public (including children) their services as facilitators in whatever areas the patrons choose. But then, libraries work well without such extra employees, so maybe they’re not needed after all.

I would suggest, instead, a system of putting people who want to study a certain topic in touch with people (not necessarily “teachers”) who wish to offer their expertise in that topic — a simple learning exchange (we have started it here in our town) with fees (if any) arranged privately.

Bill Moyers (of TV fame) tells about his final three years of school: The local (small town) librarian suggest that he was too interested in learning to waste his time in the school, so she told him to come to the library regularly and she would offer him things to read. That’s what he did, and he remembers it with joy.

Colleges usually begin with a collection of books. Like Gatto, I have envisioned the college experience (where students choose what they want to learn) beginning at age five or so. At a library, that’s what happens.

What’s needed is for more kids to be allowed to use the libraries for (some of) their (book) learning instead of being enrolled in the schools. Eventually, many will see that what’s NOT needed, or wanted, are the schools, where the patrons are treated to a bad system and bad attitude.

What most people don’t seem to know is that the typical public school experience is the part of a person’s life that’s not only unnecessary, but wasteful and often damaging, and that’s because it is the wrong model for life.

It’s no surprise that home schooling is growing so fast.