Information Literacy from Blank to Blank

We proceed through our lives as individuals and as groups by keeping a kind of balance between, on the one hand, our mental tendency to find (or create) structures and systems in whose stability and truth we can repose and, on the other, our tendency to leave those structures behind and “seek a great perhaps,” from which new patterns, structures, systems and truth emerge. When we stop proceeding, it is either because these structures have made us rigid and immobile, or because we stall and rattle around aimlessly, a perhaps turning out to have been a perhaps-not. A good education should therefore help us to know or become a part of some of these systems and structures while at the same time equipping us (or leaving us) with the means to seek our perhapses, great or otherwise.

That being the case, if David Weinberger is right that “knowledge…is going the way of the recording industry” and that “knowledge,” as a term, “won’t survive the generation,” we are looking at the prospect of a serious imbalance between two of the main complementary aims of life. That is because knowledge in any useful sense has an institutional or formal aspect or component, whether created specially, found, or adapted. There are two extreme alternatives when dealing with this ‘formal’ or ‘institutional’ knowledge. One is the acceptance of ossified knowledge—“caked wisdom,” as Barzun calls it—within ossified structures and institutions. The other, which Weinberger’s writing appears to predict, is the mind of Jorge Borges’s Funes the Memorious, which Funes himself calls a “garbage heap” and which I would call in this context a dysfunctional democracy of perhapses. As custodians of education we should examine the direction schooling is taking in order to prevent or minimize the extent of the disaster that the prevalence of these extremes will bring about.

It is in this context that I propose we treat “information literacy” and the “democracy of information” with great caution. For every one person gifted in powers of synthesis and creation who will gain from productive travel through the “big, blooming buzz of confusion,” there will be many who rattle around there, ending repeatedly in unfortunate perhaps-nots. For every John Campbell who grows rich “grazing the common of literature” we will have an awful lot of aimless cud-chewing, or worse:

From Blank to Blank—
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet—
To stop—or perish—or advance—
Alike indifferent—

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed—
I shut my eyes—and groped as well
‘Twas lighter—to be Blind—[1]

[1] Letting Emily Dickinson have the last word, in this case from poem number 761 in Thomas Johnson’s numbering of her complete poems.

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