I’ve been thinking about the Treyvon Martin case, the Stand Your Ground law, the Health Care Debate in the Supreme Court (which, it seems, will turn on Justice Kennedy’s vague but firmly held sense of “liberty”), and — oddly enough — libraries and the internet. It strikes me that the heart of the Stand Your Ground law, as well as the opposition to government-mandated health insurance, is an idea that an individual can/should “do it yourself.” You have the right/duty to protect yourself, your home, your property, your family. You have the right/duty to spend your money as you please — being either the live-for-today grasshopper or the plan-for-the-future-ant as you so desire. You can find everything you need to know somewhere out on the net, and you have the duty/responsibility to do so yourself. Really?
Of course that High Noon, Gary Cooper, Rugged Individualism vision of being American has been with us since colonial days. But I think there is something about the net that also encourages it — both the sense of power we all feel as, late at night, we trawl, and trawl, and find some amazing resource, and the way in which the ever-more-intelligent marketing power of the net feeds us just what some algorithim has determined we want to read, know, buy. We are narrowed into powerful cells. Yes we live in webs of social networks, but even there — as one of my students recently pointed out in a paper — we share and recycle the same subset of shared views and opinions, becoming just a bigger powerful cell. We trade a sense of larger community in exchange for the ever-more-vivid sense of insular or gated net-community (with the obvious analogy to Sanford).
Nothing I am saying here is so new — but friends, what do we do in our books for K-12 — what is Social Studies — it is a course in citizenship, it is training to be a member of a nation, not a powerful individual cell, pod, or network. What is a library — it is a structured location of information — not just, what do I want now?; but, what is the universe of knowledge you need to have available to you? We need to keep building, in our books, and in our libraries, a home for a sense of citizenship beyond the self and the social network. We are teaching young people to trust law, trust community, trust shared responsibility, not just to trust themselves plus their devices. And that too is a glory of NF — as we find and give form to information, we are showing readers that there can be form to knowledge — good questions, hard research, strong answers — there is a web of ideas beyond the web of your personal interests. Against all the trend of our times, we have to share, and declare, our passion for that invisible Republic of Letters — that home of glorious thought.