Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Talk for Librarians

Wisdom and Librarians

I am invited to speak to an association of Christian librarians.  I am honored, but what should I say?  What should a philosopher say to librarians?  Consider a passage of scripture that ought to evoke thoughtful reflection among philosophers and librarians.

Proverbs 2:1-8 NIV:
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.  For the LORD gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.  He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.

            We imagine the school of wisdom in ancient Israel.  Boys and young men, probably from the prominent families of Jerusalem and Judah, learn proverbs from their elders.  Solomon himself, we are told, invented proverbs and encouraged wise men to collect them.  Almost certainly, the wise sayings preserved in the Bible were a small part of the collective wisdom of the elders.
            Let us imagine a youth in this school.  Call him Joseph, a fitting name from Israel’s sacred history.  Joseph memorizes hundreds of proverbs and is quick-witted enough to quote just the right maxim for this or that situation.  Joseph has a bit of poetry in his soul; he has invented some sayings of his own.  Some day, perhaps, Joseph will sit as one of the wise men of Jerusalem, adding his little bit to the collective store of wisdom.
            Ancient Jerusalem’s school of wisdom had no card catalog, no Internet access, not even a building labeled “library.”  (The great library of Alexandria was seven hundred years in the future.)  But I think you notice parallels between our imagined Joseph and 21st century students.  By necessity, education pulls students into the intellectual world of their elders.  There is a body of knowledge or insight or understanding or wisdom already collected in the maxims of the wise.  The student starts by learning some of it.  If she is talented and persistent, she may add to it.  She will become part of a living intellectual tradition.
            But notice another feature of the Jerusalem school.  According to the text, the elders promise that if the student genuinely applies himself to learning, wisdom will protect him.  The Lord will give “victory” to the upright student and will “guard the course” of the just.  Apparently, the wise men of Israel saw a deep connection between learning and morality.  In particular, if we read the rest of chapter 2, wisdom will guard the student against the temptations of wicked plotters (vv. 12-15) and the adulteress (vv. 16-19).
            Need I point out that that the seduction of the quick buck, earned at the expense of one’s neighbor or community, and the appeal of sexual thrills found outside of a marriage covenant are still current temptations?  Three thousand years separate us from the Jerusalem school of wisdom, but human beings still struggle to rightly handle money and sex.
            Wisdom, it is said, will guard the young student against such temptations.  Really?  Educators are forced to ask fundamental questions about their disciplines.  According to the biblical vision, real understanding, real insight has to touch the “heart.”  An education that promotes skills or techniques without commitment to truth is just sophistry; we read Socrates’ battle against it in Gorgias.  An education that consists only in facts and theories is just positivism; we read Ransom’s battle against it in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.
            Does it surprise you that I step from scripture into books, either ancient or modern?  Of all people Christian librarians should not be surprised.
            A living intellectual tradition is one where ideas fight.  This is a major theme in Alasdair MacIntyre’s books.  The Bible itself contains not just Proverbs but also Ecclesiastes and Job; there is tension in the tradition.  In Gorgias, Socrates argues against sophism, but Callicles argues back, and Plato put both in his book.  It is entirely right for our libraries to hold texts by 20th century positivists, such as A.J. Ayer, as well as C.S. Lewis.  Your shelves of economic theory need to include Marxists as well as capitalists.  Julian of Norwich and Marquis de Sade.
            It is permissible, in fact, sometimes necessary, to take sides in intellectual fights.  Socrates is right; Callicles wrong.  Plato included both, not to make them equivalent, but to show the stakes in the debate and push readers to think.
            This is where teachers of philosophy and librarians come in.  We invite students into a living intellectual tradition.  If we are Christians, we invite them into a tradition that has to touch their heart.  Education is not just about theories or skills.  It is about being.
            When the student comes into her first philosophy class, she may feel overwhelmed.  When she enters the library, she feels lost. (Parenthetically, I say “library” intentionally.  With the Internet, by the end of the 21st century, the world’s libraries will number exactly one.)  Philosophy teachers and librarians are curators of wisdom.  We are guides into the treasures of the tradition.
            Obstacles abound.  At a beginning level, some students have absorbed the prejudice “philosophy bakes no bread” and have concluded it is useless.  Others have discovered Wikipedia, both a wonderful resource and a terrible temptation.  At a slightly more sophisticated level, some students enter with ideological blinders of one sort or another; at least they believe something, but they insist their education confirm what they already know.  And there are a few students who have imbibed enough philosophical skepticism to refrain from believing anything.
            A good curator must love the treasures of her museum.  Philosophy teachers and librarians must love the intellectual traditions of which we are stewards.  We’ve got to know our stuff—not in the way of the Renaissance man who was supposedly expert in everything, but in the way of the curator who knows where the experts are.  We should be enthusiastic about learning.  Sometimes, at least, we need to remind ourselves of the big picture, the tradition of wisdom stretching back to Jerusalem and other ancient places.
            We must also love the particular student who comes to us.  I confess this is hard.  I’d much rather focus on my lecture; I have so many fine things to say about MacIntyre, or Iris Murdoch, or Aquinas, or a surprising little logic proof I wrote…  By “love” I mean, “pay attention.”  On one hand we hold the intellectual tradition and all its wonders; on the other we have this particular student standing at my door or at your desk.  Paying attention may not take long, if the student only wants to know how to access a particular resource.  But if we pay attention, we will discover students who are open to more, students who are actually seeking wisdom.
            I encourage you, then, as librarians, to see yourselves as curators of wisdom, a wisdom that changes the heart.  Be well, and do good work.

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