Have Libraries Lessened the Importance of Structured Education?

| October 5, 2013

There was a time when libraries kept their books under lock and key, stored away behind gates, too precious for anyone to touch. Books were only accessible to university professors or, in the case of the Library Company of Philadelphia, benefactors. Books were still so rare that, in order to preserve them, only a limited number of people were allowed access to them. Students studying at a university had to rely entirely on their professor for knowledge in their desired field. Professors were like “knowledge keepers,” privy to insights and theories from around the world because they alone held the key to intelligence.

Library.  Reserve Book Room (Floor 3). (May 1940)_mediumCan you imagine relying solely on your professor to learn a theory or concept? Despite the invention of the printing press, education was still taught through word of mouth (and I imagine those students were excellent note takers). Conversely, professors also held the power to hide information from their students. If there was a particular topic within a subject that they did not feel was necessary or appropriate, they could choose to exclude that idea and their students wouldn’t know the difference. There was a level of censorship involved in early teaching methods, and though it’s still encountered today, the ability to withhold information is much more difficult due to the abundance of available resources. We are no longer reliant on one person’s voice to teach us ideas, theories, or concepts.

Today, we have the ability to teach ourselves, to check out books on our courses, to follow along in a textbook while our teacher or professor explains a math problem. Education is no longer for the extremely privileged. Books are available on every topic known to man and if you don’t like what one is saying, choose another.

TC Library 3rd Floor 2013

But my question is this:

How have libraries and online resources affected the role of the professor?

We have TED Talks, National Geographic, encyclopedias, the World Wide Web. There are so many opportunities to learn, but we are still so heavily dependent on our structured education systems, so much so that we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to attend them. Is it just for the piece of paper saying we learned? I am totally in favor of higher education (I’m pursuing a Masters degree right now) but sometimes I think about that moment in Good Will Hunting, when Will says “You blew 150k on an education you could have gotten in $1.50 in late fees from the library.” Is it true?