Column #23, posted September 1, 2006

The Library Metaphor

Certain metaphors dominate our society and our way of looking at the world. Lakoff has pointed out that seeing thinking as giving birth or seeing competition as war cause us to use language and then to actually believe that certain ways of seeing the world are the right way to see them. Competition really is war. We need to “kill” our opponent in the match. Sometimes these metaphors are helpful. Seeing time as money may help us “budget” our time better. But sometimes they are disastrous.

One such disastrous metaphor has dominated thinking about learning for a very long time. We need to get over it if we ever wish to see schooling become in any way relevant in the “knowledge society.” I am talking about the metaphor of knowledge as akin to something to be found in a library.

Libraries have been around for a long time. For generations, knowledge was contained in libraries, or so it seemed. But, in fact, this was never true. It didn’t matter much, until recently.

Concomitant with the idea that knowledge is contained in libraries is the idea that knowledge is found through search. In the old days, when people actually went to libraries, there were card catalogues, which were created with arcane notions such as the Dewey Decimal System that helped searchers find books that had been properly catalogued. But we don’t need that stuff anymore, because we have Google. Search has gotten easier, but real knowledge hasn’t changed.

The problem is that both the library metaphor, and the search metaphor have misled us in serious ways. The consequences of that will take a moment to explain.

When everyone agreed that libraries contained all that mankind knew, educational systems evolved in such a way that mastery of what other people had written passed for education and hence erudition. Thus we have the Great Books and the original conception of universities as places to read what great thinkers had written. The concept of testing to see if one had learned what these greats had written follows from this of course. Given that information retained from books can be measured, as can the sheer number of books read, school became a kind of competition to see who had retained the most. The winners go to Harvard.

Behind all this is the idea of the mind as a kind of library. Libraries are where knowledge is stored, so the mind must be a particular kind of library and education must be about filling the library.

In reality the mind is no kind of library at all. We lose “books” we have filed away, we mush together similar “books,” and, worst of all, we really don’t consider it our job at all to know what we know. The job of the mind is to deal with what is going on at the moment. The mind is goal-driven not knowledge driven. Knowledge is useful to the extent that it helps us accomplish goals. In fact, any child knows this. But the school system does not. So when it finds a body of knowledge it likes, (like algebra) it requires that those books get stuffed in the library and checked out from time to time. The students ask: Why do I need this? When will I use it? What goal will it help me accomplish? Since the actual answer to those questions are you don’t, never, and none, the system refuses to answer the question and instead says things it can in no way prove like it will train your mind. We are stuck in a bad metaphor. One that thinks knowing the works of Dickens is what knowledge is, when in actuality knowing what to do in a given situation is what knowledge is. Procedures matter. The more processes you know (that is the more you can execute) the more you can do.

School is not about doing, despite scholars from Plato to Dewey saying it should be, because of the library metaphor. Doing is hard. It is hard to do and it is hard to teach. But if knowledge is about storage then school becomes easier to manage. If the best students are those who store and search well, then we can figure out who goes to Harvard. But if knowledge is the service of the achievement of daily human goals, then knowledge might be something hard to explicitly state and to measure.

We have got to get rid of the library metaphor or school will always be the same: an experience to be endured rather than relished.

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