“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word intellectual, of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.”
Iconic words from a story written sixty years ago. "Farenheit 451" was published in the post-World War II era and revolved around the sometimes ubiquitous “not-too-distant” future. It criticized the the loathsome antiseptic apathy that the book’s protagonist encountered with each new turn. State-sponsored censorship seemed to flow from his living room walls.
Of course, the story now seems relegated to the likes of "1984" and others where the dystopian social apocalypse never materialized. Yet it serves as the perfect metaphor for the current anxiety and melancholy surrounding both our educational system and America’s ability to create and innovate as a global nation.
In about two weeks – on April 1 – the DeKalb County Library on McAfee Road will shut its doors for good. In fact, libraries throughout DeKalb County are feeling budget woes. A new library – the Stonecrest Branch – cannot even open its doors; others have had to reduce hours and keep the doors closed on Sundays.
This follows on the heels of the Briarcliff Library closure in DeKalb last year. More than simply shuttering a building that has become too expensive to run, it also means that the library system as whole in DeKalb County may not get new books, newspapers or magazines.
Economic pundits might blame a combination of the economy and a growing trend toward electronic resources and Internet readership. After all, newspapers, magazines, and even bookstores (like Borders) have shut down for good or filed for bankruptcy in the past few years.
But it also shows a more disturbing trend in marginalizing education and innovation. Around the country, education curriculums – and arts programs in particular – have been slashed. Our high school students cannot pass elementary math tests and our college students cannot read at a high school level.
Once a nation of scientists, engineers, and artists, we rank twenty-first in literacy and somewhere around twenty-fifth in math and science. I am sure it would shock people to know that countries like Cuba and Tonga rank higher. Moreover, about forty percent of Americans have only a basic or below basic level of literacy.
Programs that facilitate learning, ambition, and confidence (such as music, art and writing) have all but disappeared from our nation’s schools. One does not have to read "Freakonomics" to guess that our actions now will contribute to poverty, crime, and the ever-feared “welfare state.”
To the number crunchers, closing a library is about the bottom line. A candidate would commit political suicide to suggest that wealthy or even middle class Americans pay a bit more in taxes to subsidize learning. The children who read today are the adults who contribute to our national wallet later.
But for now, closing a library is just another line in a long message that education, innovation, and the arts don’t matter as much as a line item on a tax return.