December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.
The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.
But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.
Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.
Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *
Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:
“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”
Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.
He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.
This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.
Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.
While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.
Human beings are monotypic: we’re the only species within our taxonomic genus. Monotypic genera are relatively rare—it’s unusual for there to be no other species within a genus, especially among higher level complex organisms. (*)
Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.
But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.
Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.
Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.
Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton is an essential challenge to the “virgin soil” thesis that has governed the standard historical narrative of the European colonization of the New World. Dr. Kelton argues that this narrative is too simplistic, and largely fails to comprehend or address the complexity of Native cultures during that period. Moreover, the “virgin soil” thesis is based entirely on the testaments left behind by European colonialists—who misunderstood Native actions and behaviors more often than not—and incorporates no significant input from Native Americans’ own historical knowledge.
Worse yet, the “virgin soil” thesis whitewashes the effects of the violence and oppression inherent in the colonization of the New World.
Dr. Kelton uses the Cherokee as an example of how the traditional narrative of colonization falls apart when asked to answer to the historical resources of a Native people. Moreover, he points out that even the reliable documentary evidence we have from the European colonists themselves doesn’t support the “virgin soil” thesis.
If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book will make you see things in a very different light. This is exactly what good history is supposed to do.
Let me start with this: STEM education is important. Despite the headline, this article doesn’t try to argue that it isn’t important.
Looking back at the history of education in this country, it seems to me that we were at our best, our strongest and most successful, when we had a balance across three arenas of study: liberal arts + STEM + vocational training. We need all three, equally. Liberal arts, in particular, is what stood us apart from much of the rest of the world during the 20th century. We also had far-and-away the most robust and most affordable vocational training in the world during the middle section of the century.
Liberal arts tracks have been under attack for pretty much my entire life, and prior. Vocational training in this country has been utterly gutted over the past decades. STEM education is important but I also worry that we emphasize it at the expense of reestablishing this three-pillared balance.
I’m fascinated by ancient history—the archaic and classical Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Mostly, though, I love studying paleoanthropology and archaeology—the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, the evolution of human kind and our spread across the face of the planet.
Recent history doesn’t particularly interest me. I understand the proximal importance of the Modern Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc., to the present day but it doesn’t capture my imagination. I look at the world during that time and I see something very much like the world I was born into. It’s too familiar to be fascinating.
I’m fascinated by ancient and prehistory because these eras are so vastly different from the world I live in. In a review I wrote of Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, I refer to the “alien-ness of Bronze Age Greece”. I read articles like this one about Kennewick Man and it’s shocking to realize just how little prehistoric life resembles my own. How vastly different it was than anything I’ve ever known.