Daily Archives: May 15, 2008

The education vs. indoctrination debate

I’m the RSS reader type who subscribes to a little bit of everything and then doesn’t really pay attention to which is which when skimming through the feeds (let’s just say “detail oriented” doesn’t go on my resume). Yet somehow in the melee of my reader, the Digital Reference blog keeps getting my attention. It’s not that Stephen’s posts are particularly controversial, but he just keeps hitting topics in a way that sparks my mind into motion. Most recently the one that got the wheels turning was “Referring patrons to open access resources.” Here’s what he had to say:

As I’ve been reading up on open access journals and open access archives (AKA open access repositories), I’ve been wondering to what extent I have been intentionally and unintentionally guiding patrons to these resources. I have to admit that I can’t remember a time when I explicitly referred a student to search for content in an open access archive or suggested they use a tool to locate articles in OA journals.

What got me in this paragraph was the “I have to admit” part, the feeling that this post is somehow an apology for not directing students to OA databases first. If that’s something to be sorry for then I’d better get in line, because I’ve never deliberately led a student to an OA resource. In my opinion, that would be something like suggesting a book on their topic because it was a nice color. Sure, I enjoy looking at a book with a pretty cover, but I’m sure as heck not going to select (er, judge) it on that point.

So here we go, into the “education vs. indoctrination” debate. Do we push tools and resources because we want to teach students to believe what we believe, or because they deliver what the student wants? Seems like a no-brainer, but even so early in my career I’ve been in a few situations where I wrestled with that question — such as the young boy who came in when I was at the public library and asked for books that support his pro-life opinion (can you have politics at 10?). I can remember some passionate debates on the subject in library school, and the issue reaches into all of higher education. Do a search on “education and indoctrination” anywhere you like and you’ll immediately find yourself in the thick of it. For instance, consider this comment in a Chronicle article by Jonathan Malesic entitled, “The Smell of Indoctrination in the Morning”:

In graduate school, I once overheard one teaching assistant tell another that she wanted to try to make her students into liberals before it was too late. Now, I think that having a few more liberals around, especially if they were strategically placed in swing states, would be a great thing for the republic. So in one sense, I sympathize with that TA. But I also know that to make students into liberals is an essentially illiberal act.

The fuzzy part of the issue is the question of where that line between education and indoctrination actually lies. Is it like pornography: you know it when you see it? Maybe. Or it could be even more tenuous and grey; an ever-shifting line that challenges us on a daily basis to uphold our own democratic values. It’s our privilege as librarians to know what the best information sources are, and to know what sources make for a healthy future of information. It is our challenge to communicate that knowledge to others. But is a reference interview the place to do so?

What do you think? Do you recommend resources based on need and relevance to the reference question, or do other factors come into play? In what circumstances do you (however subtly) push your values out to unsuspecting students? It’s a question worth asking ourselves periodically, and trying to measure how close we stand to that shifting, grey line.