Browsing through Samizdata this morning, I found this link to an amazing collection of photographs of libraries. Wow. If you have the slightest interest in books, art, history - that sort of thing - it is a must see.
These were built in a time when reading was a serious business. Great mean poured their fortunes into building libraries that were a cross between a cathedral and the data centres of their age. They are from an age when knowledge was respected, and being a self-taught polymath was something to strive for. The hushed and solemn tones of these institutions speaks volumes about their purpose - the quiet ingestion of information, the contemplation of facts and theories and the overall betterment of civilisation and mankind. Learning for its own sake was an honourable pastime, and those who were learned and witty were sought out by the fashionable and the great and the good.
When Junior comes home from school and mentions talking in class, my mind immediately springs to an internal view of somewhere like the National Library in Canberra, and I want to visit his school and beat the talkers over the heat with a mallet. Preferably of the meat tenderising variety. I cannot fathom how learning can take place in an atmosphere of chattering over skateboard trucks, iPod accessories, surf trips and bike stunts. Most of all, I cannot understand how the teachers can take it. Why do we not read more regularly of fed-up teachers throttling their blathering students?
I look at kids these days, and I see a nest full of newly hatched chicks, heads back, all squawking away as they compete for attention (and food). If their synapses manage to fire, and a random thought emerges, it has to be instantly carried to the vocal chords and tongue for onward transmission to the world. Few have learned to still their tongue under any circumstances.
I am looking forward to someone making a horror movie where ghouls are creeping through a house looking for people to eat, and the teenagers get picked off one by one because they can't hide in a cupboard or under a bed for 30 seconds without having to broadcast inanities to the universe. The only survivors are the adults, who can sit in silence and think without gibbering.
They are awake for say 16 hours per day. When they are at school, the only spend 5 hours in class per day. Is it that much to ask that they cease to flap theirs gums for less than 1/3 of their waking hours? You know the education system has gone to pot when the constant dribbling of teenagers is put on a par with the dissertations of teachers. If teachers want to regain their place and standing in society, then they must stand up and say, "We are better than these little miscreants. We are more knowledgeable, we are move civilised and we are better citizens. We refuse to be dragged down to their level, to wallow in their ignorance and callowness. We want our pedestal back, and we're not going to stop fighting until we are once again standing on it - dressed in a suit and tie and bedecked with gowns."
Teaching went to hell when we started to think that students and teachers are equal, and that students have rights.
So I look at those pictures of the libraries of old, and I think how far we have fallen as a civilisation. And no matter how pretty Google makes its data centres, they will never create an atmosphere of jaw-dropping awe, and a silent reverance for knowledge. They might be good at piping terra-pixels of information around, but the amount of knowledge that Google has passed on to our students could be captured in a thimble (which by the way is why I detest the idea of computers in schools - doing a Ctrl-C and capturing information from a web page is not the same as absorbing knowledge, or learning how to think and argue logically, or how to set out an argument).
J and me are adamant that when we finally build a house, it will have a library. The only electrical equipment that it will be allowed to contain will be light bulbs (assuming we are still allowed to light our houses in the future). It will have comfortable armchairs, and a view out a bay window or french doors onto a garden. I really want it to have high ceilings, so we need to use a ladder to get to the topmost shelves.
In the meantime, I'll just contemplate the Biltmore House library, and dream.