We Can Handle the Truth
We recently lost a great champion of intellectual freedom – Judith Krug, who called attention to attempts to withdraw books from libraries, challenged the government on Internet censorship, and built coalitions to preserve our freedom to read and consider ideas without penalty. She embodied what we as librarians and academics value and she defended it with fierce intelligence.
On campuses, we rarely have book challenges to cope with, but there are more intangible challenges that compel me to think that information literacy is more important than ever, and that it needs to go beyond “how this library works” and “how to be a good student” but embrace “how to understand and evaluate evidence” but even more importantly “why evidence matters.” (I hasten to add, before you hit the comment button, that I believe information literacy is not the sole responsibility of librarians; it’s something the entire academy must embrace, and when it’s defined as more than “how to use this library” I believe they generally do embrace it, even if they aren’t always sure how to do it. And while I’m editing this, I realize this whole train of thought owes much to the Infofetishist who wrote a thought-provoking post about evidence recently. You should read it.)
One problem we have is the multiple meanings of the word “argument.” The popular meaning of the word is that it’s a form of discourse that results in a winner. Evidence is something you might selectively use, along with ethos, logos, and pathos. But as you prepare for an argument, you already know what side you’re on. You just need some “facts” to prove it.
Another definition of argument – the one used in the parts of composition textbooks that students don’t usually read – is about how you develop and frame a position based on evidence as well as effective use of it. The piece that’s especially important in terms of information literacy is not that you find evidence that will work effectively for your argument, but that you find and evaluate evidence so that you can make your mind up about the issue you’re investigating.
A student recently introduced me to the concept of agnotology – a newly-minted word to capture efforts to generate “the cultural production of ignorance” or, put differently, an effort to cast doubt on widely-recognized scientific principles by any means necessary. We had just been discussing Joel Best’s description of how “mutant statistics” are used by claims-makers to shape public attitudes about social issues. And one thing that seems to be frequently missing in our discussions of how to frame an argument is not just that it must be based on evidence but that we must be willing to let the evidence persuade us before we deploy it to persuade others. In other words, it’s not a tool, it’s not an ingredient we select to spice up a claim, it’s where we go to get our understanding. For that reason, it’s not something we can reject because it doesn’t fit our beliefs. It should shape our beliefs.
The ACRL is a member of Free Exchange on Campus, a “coalition of faculty, student, and civil rights organizations working together to preserve the free exchange of ideas on college campuses.” This group has recently published Facts Still Count, a rebuttal of David Horowitz’s most recent book, which contends with cherry-picked anecdotes that higher education is full of leftist professors seducing innocents. He also has suggested that the best way to counteract this seduction is to require professors to teach “both sides” of issues – which again uses the notion that argument is a contest between two sides (only two, apparently, as simple as right and left or red and blue) and we place our bets based on which one we want to win.
In reality, knowledge isn’t a contest, it’s more of a team sport. We do what we can to arrive at the truth collectively and sure, we have our scuffles along the way and many disagreements aren’t easily resolved. But winning isn’t the point; losing is fine so long as it gets us somewhere.
Another recently-published book that I just added to my incredibly long “to be read” list is For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. An excerpt at the Yale UP site introduces the issue by recounting a response to a Common Reading book choice at a college campus. A committee of citizens denounced the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as “an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism.” The assumption seems to be that if you read something, you are being forced to agree with it, though the purpose of such common reading programs is to stimulate discussion, not to inculcate beliefs or establish a body of facts that will be on the test.
Academic libraries have a relatively easy time of it. We don’t tell anybody what to read, we just offer lots of choices and occasionally have to defend the existence of those choices. But when reading a book in common comes under threat because reading is characterized as a form of indoctrination, or when a teacher’s freedom to teach is threatened by an effort to establish a student’s right to force the teacher to teach “the other side,” it becomes a matter that should concern us as a profession that believes in intellectual freedom.
And when it comes to information literacy, we should be having more conversations about how to get across the idea that “evidence matters” in terms that are more complex than “because you’ll write a better paper.”
Posted: April 18, 2009 by Barbara Fister
in Higher Education, Information Ethics, Information Literacy.
Tags: academic freedom, agnotology, common reading programs, David Horowitz, Free Exchane on Campus, intellectual freedom, Joel Best, Judith Krug