So, I was out running this morning, listening to podcasts because I’m a nerd like that, and I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly tripped when, in the midst of Freakonomics radio, I heard the term “financial literacy.” I mean, it’s not that I think librarians have the corner on waving the literacy banner, but the way people are adding the word “literacy” to the end of whatever it is they think is in need of attention is getting a little ridiculous, isn’t it? And it’s certainly not that I think information literacy or financial literacy are ridiculous concepts. They aren’t. It’s just that what we’re all waving our respective fill-in-the-blank literacy banners about is essentially the same thing: People need to know more about the world around them and they need to ask good questions and know where to go to get good answers.
If you listen to the podcast or read the transcript (both are available here) you can hear that although Annamaria Lusardi and Lauren Willis supposedly arguing on either side of the financial literacy debate, they’re really arguing for the same thing. Lusardi says that education is the only solution but the problem is that education is expensive. Willis says that actually, we’re not that great at educating in the first place and that there is no evidence that knowing the difference between a stock and a bond correlates to people doing better in their lives, but knowing math does make a difference. In other words, knowing the difference between a database and Wikipedia doesn’t make a difference in people’s lives, but knowing how to judge information does. Lusardi says that we need to teach people how to drive before we license them for a car, and Willis says that really, all we need to do is hire a knowledgable someone to drive the car for us. In other words, education matters. Whether we’re educating students to find their own information or we’re educating librarians to be the knowledge repositories, education is still central to both of their arguments.
Here’s the thing. If people don’t know enough to know what they don’t know, how can we expect them to value what we do as librarians? To seek us out when they’re having trouble? To ask good questions? Without education, not only don’t they know that a zero-down mortgage with a crazy interest rate is a terrible idea, but they also don’t know who to ask for advice on what might be better.
I’m still considering what the librarian’s role in the banner-waving parade is. I don’t know how effective it is for us to teach one-off workshops, but I’m afraid for what might happen if we don’t. I am very concerned that we never get to see how a student might use our teaching, but I would never suggest that the education we provide isn’t valuable. It’s a kind of black hole of good intentions. What we want and what we can reasonably expect are two very different things, but we just can’t face the possibility of not trying.