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In my review of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, I asked the following question:

What if the library recognized and took ownership of its etymological history as a place of books? What if it began to take seriously a mission not of ‘access to information’ or ‘access to material’, but of ‘emancipation’. Whaf if instead of information literacy, we though about intellectual emancipation?

I’ve been thinking more about these questions, and about Rancière’s concept of radical equality, and it seems to me that these ideas could have a serious impact on coming up with a mission for libraries that does not merely see them as supportive of neoliberal goals and requirements (both in terms of universities and municipalities). Currently, despite the best intentions of library workers, libraries are adrift in a current of competing interests, as capitalism attempts both to recover from the previous economic crisis, prepare for the next one, and deal with the ever-worsening effects of climate change.

This round of thinking about this was sparked off by a few recent meetings with or about our Teaching & Learning Committee. As usual, the concepts of “learning styles” and “solid pedagogical principles” came up, but without a lot of critical interrogation of these ideas. And it occurred to me that the very basis of “pedagogy” violates Rancière’s principle of equality (as he himself notes in the book). The word “pedagogy” comes from the Greek παιδός (child) + ἄγω (I lead). By definition, then, pedagogy sets up an inequality between the child - presumed ignorant - and the one who leads, the teacher. This implicity inequality also turns up in narratives of library leadership which tends to ignore that to have leaders, one must also have followers; this is ignored in order to avoid difficult questions of the place of “collegiality” and hierarchy in a system which privileges leaders. In any event, “solid pedagogical foundations” must be based on an inequality, not only of knowledge, but of ability to teach/learn (or else the child could simply teach themselves).

This fundamental inequality is, obviously, the basis of modern universities (it seems to have been less prominent in older European universities where students were indeed expected to “teach themselves”). One could argue that this conforms with the hierarchical requirements of late capitalism, just as the school timetable and desks-in-rows inured schoolchildren to the exigencies of factory discipline in the 19th and 20th centuries. The academic library, in a mistaken (in my opinion) bid to be taken seriously by the academy, attempts to play the pedgagogical game by the academy’s rules. We have “Teaching & Learning Committees”, we teach classes, we have librarians who consider themselves teachers/pedagogues. But - going back to my original question - what if, rather than conforming to the teacher/student inequality that forms the basis of the academy, academic libraries went the opposite route, to become places where this inequality does not hold, a place - perhaps the only place in the university - where learning happens in the absence of a teacher, where students are precisely expected to teach themselves.

(Full disclosure: this was my experience of undergraduate university - I learned the most from unsystematic reading through the library; certainly much more than I learned from any of my classes).

Which brings me to “mathetics”, a word coined by John Amos Comenius in 1680 to describe the science of learning (in contrast to “didactics”, the science of teaching). What would an academic library look like that privileged mathetics over didactics/pedagogy? What if instead of teaching tools/technologies/information literacy, we focused instead on showing - hopefully by example - that learning can and must take place in the absence of a teacher. (“Must” if we want to dispense with the insidious cornerstone of inequality perpetuated by the universities). Not only, in my opinion, would providing a space for self-learning/self-teaching (“auto-didacticism”) provide a fitting complement to traditional classroom teaching leading to better education (“leading out”) overall , but it would also help dispense with the imperative of “passing classes” which, under capitalism is subsumed under the category of exchange value (and in a Freudian sense is subsumed under the category of pleasing the teacher). It might also foster more flexible, critical thinking, as students become liberated from the constraints of their disciplines.

From the libraries perspective, I think adopting “mathetics” as our mission would help to solidify our policies. Student space, collection development, IT services - all of which, in my opinion, suffer from a lack of focus, lack of direction, and lack of common vision, would, I think, be brought into high-relief if we were to reconceive our mission as supporting the self-learning of students and of showing by example how such self-learning works.

From a dialectical perspective, the pedagogical inequalities of the university are a thesis rife with contradictions. The current model of the academic library attempts to conform to that thesis, leading to the fairly dire position we currently find ourselves in (with respect to relationships with faculty and students, vendor exploitation, technological doldrums, lack of diversity, and reproduction of oppressive socio-economic structures). Rather than being part of the problem, dialectics suggests that by becoming the antithesis to the dominant pedagogical model, the university itself would benefit, by becoming a synthetic unity of the two opposites, something richer and more well-rounded than it currently is.

I haven’t spoken about the public library here, as in a way it is in a better pedagogical/mathetic position precisely because it is not embedded in an institution which sees itself as the standard bearer for education. The constraints of neoliberal municipal requirements will always deform the mission of the public library, but I think this is one area in which the public continues (for now) to recognize the possibility and desirability of self-education.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities that Rancière’s principle of equality holds for all kinds of social structures and situations, but this idea - of the “mathetic library” - seems like something worth pursuing. A commitment to a radical equality would also commit us, as I suggested above, to a mission of emancipation, both material and intellectual. Such a mission is something I think the library world desparately needs.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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