I once had to do a tricky take-home exam on Plato, over a break when I wasn’t at the university.
I didn’t have a laptop, just a giant desktop computer. I had a copy of the quiz, my great big anthology of Greek philosophy, a pen and a notebook, but I didn’t have a quiet place to read. I was living in a house with six other people, two of whom were a quarrelsome married couple and a third was a drummer who held jam sessions with his band in the basement nearly every night, shaking the whole house. I hadn’t been able to read due to the noise for my entire week-long break and the exam was due the day I got back to school. So I walked several blocks to a Burger King that had free drink refills. I bought a diet Coke, and I kept topping off my diet Coke every so often. After several hours I was heavily caffeinated, gassy, probably in danger of aspartame poisoning, and I’d cost the Burger King a lot more in drinks than I’d actually paid. I was also deeply familiar with every aspect of The Republic. I knew The Republic like the back of my hand. Unfortunately for me, the answer to the exam question wasn’t in The Republic. I should have been reading The Phaedo the whole time. But it was time for the Burger King to close.
This is a roundabout way of saying that people need spaces where they can go to read quietly without being expected to buy anything. Everyone does–including respectable graduate students who live in a house, so you’d think they could study at home. Having those spaces readily available is good for everyone– including restaurant owners who lose money on soda the week before an exam is due. We all ought to have a good working knowledge about the works of Plato, as well, but first things first. People need places to read in quiet where they won’t need to purchase something as a talisman that allows them to stay there.
Once, when I was at the public library, I saw a taciturn older man grousing at a librarian. He was trying to find a certain book, and more and more put out that he couldn’t locate it. It incensed him that the librarian wouldn’t just leave her desk and go get the book for him. The librarian was cheerfully explaining that the book was in the online card catalog. I’d never seen a more awkward pairing– the small, well-dressed young lady with a smile that was genuine but confused, trying to coax the large, t-shirt wearing old man to go to the computer. The man getting more and more belligerent, expecting the librarian to produce the book for him like a conjuring trick. I thought she’d turn him out of the library, but she didn’t. Instead, she asked him a question.
“Why won’t you just check the online catalog?” she asked.“Because I don’t want to spend hours trying to figure out how to use the computer,” said the man. “I don’t enjoy that.”
The librarian looked relieved. “Oh, sir, is that all?” she asked. “I can show you how to use the catalog myself. It’s my job. Come here.”
She sat the old man down at the computer and showed him how to use the online catalog. He found his book and checked it out, smiling.
This is a roundabout way of saying that computers alone will never be enough, as sources of information. For a populace to be well-informed, we will always need patient human beings whose job it is to teach us how to use computers, to gather information and to select the right information. This problem will not go away as the Baby Boomers die out and we find ourselves with a whole population that’s accustomed to online catalogs instead of wooden drawers filled with cards. Computers are always changing, and there will always be people who are better at using them than others. There will always be a grumpy man who’s scared to death of the latest technological innovation, whether it’s going from cards to computers or going from an old online index to a brand new one. There needs to always be a person available whose job it is to smile patiently and teach them.
Once, when I was twelve, I was in the juvenile chapter books section of my local library, looking for a Baby-Sitters’ Club book I hadn’t read yet. I liked The Baby-Sitters’ Club because they were so easy to read and soothingly formulaic. I read at least one Baby-Sitters’ Club book every week. While I was browsing the rainbow of slim pastel paperbacks, I found a misshelved copy of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was unabridged and unadapted, completely unsuitable for children, but the cover was colorful and bright– I could see how a tired librarian would accidentally misshelve it after a long day. I checked that book out and read it from beginning to end. It was not easy, nor was it soothingly formulaic. I didn’t want to admit that I disliked it.
“Someday, when you’re older,” my father mentioned as he saw me plugging away at the book, “You’ll read Les Miserables by the same author. I read it in college.”
“Someday, when you’re older” was a challenge I accepted. I didn’t want to wait until I was older. That would be admitting defeat. I finished The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I read all the way through Les Miserables– all of it, even the hundred-page digressions on the sewers of Paris and why monasteries are unnecessary. It took me months. Afterwards I read Dickens and other novels for grown-ups. I never did go back to The Baby-Sitters’ Club until I read them nostalgically as an adult.