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Nov 17

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A Tribute to Teachers and Librarians

Get your mind off of whatever it’s on at the moment and pay attention to the people responsible for your having a mind worth anything at all: teachers and librarians.

Writing any fiction at all requires knowing something about the setting, local mores, police procedures, the distance from Oslo to Bergen, or whatever else the story requires. Writing science fiction goes even further, requiring perhaps the dimensions of Jupiter’s rings (The White Shamitz), non-natural DNA analogs (The Humanity Experiment), or relativistic mechanics (A Hierarchy of Gods). In fact, it helps to be a scientist.  Nor is fantasy immune. You do know the difference between brass and bronze, don’t you, and between catapults and ballistas? Between castles and palaces?

The common theme here is knowledge. Even if you’re not a writer, knowledge comes in useful if you want to balance a checkbook, read a recipe, or change your oil. We live in a world where knowledge is essential. Therefore, let’s take a moment to honor two important repositories and administrators of knowledge: teachers and librarians.

Our society is not only complex; it is capricious. We bestow honor upon actors and sports stars, paying them often millions of dollars when, frankly, they’re completely unnecessary. We bestow honor upon the idle rich of the world, whose main contribution seems to be to take up space in the gossip column. But when it comes to the people without whom our society would collapse — the garbage collectors, the firefighters, the teachers and librarians — we pay them a pittance and pretend they don’t exist. When’s the last time you’ve seen a librarian on the cover of People magazine?

Teachers

A lot of parents seem to see teachers as free daytime babysitters. Don’t dispute the point, because I’ve known parents to come out and say it. They often feel the same way about Scout leaders, sports coaches, and youth ministers. I know. Been there; done that.

Mostly, these people don’t mind; it’s part of what you sign up for. People who know me also know that I’ve devoted a significant fraction of my life to children, as a Sunday school and CCD teacher, as a Scout leader, as an adventure educator, as a youth advocate, and on occasion as a counselor or rescuer.  Not for the money or the recognition, but simply because our children are important. Even if they’re actually someone else’s. There is sound philosophical and scientific justification for believing that we are programmed to want to nurture children, and I can’t help but wonder about people who don’t.

I’ve met some teachers who don’t like children, which makes me question what they’re doing in that line of work. However, it may be that their joy comes from the other side of the equation, the part that is the focus of this post: passing out knowledge.

Throughout my public school life as a minor, I loved science and mathematics, not surprisingly, but couldn’t see much point in Ohio history and diagramming sentences. Diagramming sentences has since come to be a delight, but at 15, I was clueless. Likewise, general education requirements in college are a constant thorn in the sides of students. Yes, I wondered why I needed economics and non-western social systems to practice physics (my change to chemistry came later.) But now, I understand what educators then understood: that physics and chemistry are not practiced in a vacuum; they are practiced in the context of a society.

Whatever field a person chooses, he will need to be able to read and write, and should have at least a little competence in understanding the world around them. If we are going to practice science and engineering within the scope of a society, then we should know something about that society.  It dismays me that they have to put some of the warnings they do on products. “Do Not Eat.” Seriously? It dismays me further that people go to the polls and vote based on television commercials and not on fundamental knowledge of economics, sociology, and political science.

That is the role of teachers: to equip the next generation with an essential toolkit of skills to function effectively in the modern world. They produce the citizens who keep our world working.

Librarians

Alvar LibrarianTeachers are the first line of defense against ignorance, but there is another, broader, battle front. When you graduate from high school, or college, or a Ph.D. program, even with a 4.00 GPA, you come out knowing just the most miniscule iota of knowledge that our species possesses today. As a teen, I fantasized of knowing everything about science. Hah! Fat chance! I hold a master’s degree in physical chemistry, with applications to biochemical systems. One of the books I own is the definitive reference on 2-dimensional infrared spectroscopy, yet I probably know no more than 20% of what there is to know about it.

If you intend to engage in any project that extends beyond the mere essentials of survival — forming a nonprofit corporation, creating a video game, or building a deck — you will need knowledge that they didn’t teach in school. That’s where librarians come in.

You might argue that in this day and age, we have Google. But let me try to say this delicately. Google is dumb. It can’t search for knowledge; it only searches for words. I recall an episode many years ago when I was searching for information on adventure education for girls (Janelle will know why). Because I included the word girls, I got back about 200 pages of porn sites, and had to exclude just about every word ever used to refer to a portion of female anatomy to get any useful results. The science of search engine optimization is dedicated to getting your site to appear at the top of the list regardless of what a person actually wants to see.

There is so much information available that you are likely never to find what you need without help, and Google doesn’t always cut it. In grad school, I had access to SciFinder, American Chemical Society abstracts, and more, but even so, I had to spend hours with one of the chemistry librarians to help me wade through the morass. Yes, there are specialized subject librarians. There is a vast amount of knowledge available on the Internet, but there is also a vast amount of knowledge not available on the Internet. You can get to the generalities fairly easily on your own, but when you get to the point of needing the specifics, such as the plasmon patterns on the surface of a gold nanocube, or a map of Paris in 1752, a librarian may be your only hope.

 

You might enjoy your Playstation 4, your cell phone, your sports car, or even your shampoo.  If I mentioned that building a Playstation requires knowledge about solid-state lasers, servomechanisms, XYZ-UVW texture mapping, matrix calculation algorithms, and large-scale semiconductor fabrication at nanoscale resolutions, I would be just scratching the surface. More knowledge went into that design than it is even possible for any one person to know.

You would not have it if teachers and librarians had not prepared the way.

I can write properly because a teacher taught me the difference between a gerund and a participle. I found out what I needed to about bacterial siderophores because a librarian got me access to journals that couldn’t even find by myself.

Teachers and librarians are the distributors and guardians of the knowledge upon which modern society is built. They hold the future in their pockets, open the gateway to imagination, and carry the keys to inspiration.  It is not unreasonable to say that they are one of the backbones of our world, yet how often do we even hear of them? We only discuss teachers as though they are to blame for the state of our educational system (they’re not) and librarians never at all.

Yet there they remain, keeping our society afloat with virtually no recognition that they are doing so, while we sit stupidly and focus our enthusiasm on the latest flash-in-the-pan rap singer, who is indisputably unnecessary. It is high time that we gave credit where it’s due.

So reserve this moment for a standing ovation. The next time you see one, let him or her know just how much you appreciate the contribution they make to society. Those few seconds will be much more important and rewarding than buying another football ticket so your favorite quarterback can buy another condo.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/tribute-teachers-librarians/

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