So, how did we afford all this stuff?

One of the things I wonder about a lot is this whole idea that while we used to be able to do/build/have certain things in the past, we are now apparently no longer able to. This is despite the overall wealth of the US now being far greater than it was when we used to do these things.

For example, where we once built public buildings (stores, churches, schools, courthouses) in monumental ways and with fine materials, we now cut corners. We place what should be important buildings in poor locations. We put a school in a field at the edge of town. We put a courthouse in a rundown neighborhood. There is an uproar if anyone tries to do more than the basics when designing or building anything with tax money.

I was again reminded of this when I read this article in the NY Times about the precipitous decline in school libraries.

In the “old days” every school had a library and librarian. The library was a central part of the school experience. It was well used, funded and maintained.

Then over time, things began to change. First we started getting behind on updating the library collection. This is brought up twice in the Times article:

  • A “library, whose books were so outdated that some still referred to the Soviet Union without reporting its demise.”
  • “[T]he principal of one of the six high schools that share the building said the books there were too outdated to be usable.”

When a collection is not appropriate for use, it’s not surprising that fewer people use it.

Then we started sharing libraries between schools, eliminating the ability for many kids to simply stop by the library during their school day. It now required a special school trip — maybe even in a bus — to go to the “school’s” library. Not surprisingly this further marginalized library use.

And now finally, we’ve simply stopped hiring, and have moved on to firing, librarians. While many folks seem to feel that Google can somehow replace a librarian, this is obviously not really the case. Curators and experts are needed no matter what situation we are in.

Basically, we’ve said that these things, school libraries, which were apparently mandatory and expected in the first part of the 20th century are now way too expensive. And because they are too expensive, we first marginalize them and then eliminate them.

And the subtext here, of course, is the incredible hole we’ve dug for ourselves in education overall.

As the President mentioned in his Twitter Town Hall yesterday: “For us now to give short shrift to education when the world is more complex than ever, and it’s a knowledge-based society and companies locate based on whether they’ve got skilled workforces or not, that makes no sense.”

Again, back to my main point: How could we afford this stuff in the past? Why can’t we now? Where is all the money going instead?



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