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A toolshed for selves forming themselves

Traditionally, only a small elite could acquire liberal learning, which had simlarities to acquiring the skills of the courtier — much easier if you were born into circumstances where a well-stocked library, learned elders, tutors and travel, the chance to practice early with the sense that doing so was simply natural — comme il faut, as it should be — all these were almost preconditions of the possibility. And now, we've got to ask, What's happening with the Internet and what we are intending to do on it? What happens if we do a good job putting together in the digital commons, an open environment, the best that's been thought and said for persons — any where, any time — who want to learn liberally, study deeply, think formatively, and educate tactfully?

Ah ha! Billions of people connect to the Internet and the circumstances for acquiring liberal learning will be ready at hand for those of them who wish to do so, whatever the accidents of their birth. It's a different ball game.
Hey! Why call it a toolshed? What's out there is way-too-much for a toolshed! Look at one university's list of digital research guides, about 250 by my count! You need something really big, an Amazon warehouse, to hold just a part of it all. I help a professor with his library and saw a book in it, Too Much to Know, and said to myself, "Yeah, that's the problem!" And you know what? I looked more closely at the subtitle—Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.[1] And the historian who wrote it starts the "modern age" around 1500. A toolshed isn't right.
You'd be right ... if we were organizing tools so that everyone can thoroughly research whatever topic they want. But that's not exactly what we want to make possible.
What do you mean? As I see it, when there is too much to know that forces people to specialize, to cut what each is going to know down to a size they can handle, and then they go off and do a lot of research, with the result that there's even more to know. It's like with traffic—too many cars, more highways; more highways, more cars.... Too much to know, more specialization; then more research, and on and on we go—you know!
Well, if someone wants to advance their specialty, there are better resources than A Place to Study.
Get real, man! I'm a junior and just finished the general education part of my collegiate education at a very selective institution. Tuition is very high, the faculty is all bucking to get ahead on specialized credentials and the students, insofar as they work at all, are also trying to slot themselves on one or another specialized track, and neither the academic libraries nor the scholarly publishers excel at packaging the resources for liberal learning so that anyone with the whim for it can take them all up at negligible cost.
But research isn't every....
No, don't tell me about what all the local libraries are doing, or the bookstores that are fast disappearing into the Amazonian maw. We have a good library where I grew up and they have a certain amount of good stuff, but their resources are spread thin keeping up with their users' tastes, driven by a marketplace that rewards ever-changing celebrity and novelty. Is that what you mean by "liberal learning?" Liberal learning is in trouble, caught between rampant specialization and commercial kow-towing to celebrity and novelty.
OK. You are correct. The problem is serious. Some exceptional libraries exist here and there, but all the forces hollowing out liberal learning are real and powerful. Certainly if we want to be snarky about popular culture we can build a depressing case that it is disappearing fast—the people commodifying culture use their profits to push its commodification further while quality efforts pull back defensively, becoming more and more the esoteric holding of one or another over-privileged enclave.
Now you're showing some realism. When your friend was talking about sprezzatura, saying the Internet could challenge the old elitism of liberal learning by making the resources for it accessible to all, I didn't speak up, but it struck me as way too optimistic.
Yeah. I don't deny the problems. I've tried to cultivate liberal learning for 60 years now, and it has become harder, and the prospects for it worse now, than when I began—students concentrate more on preparing for the marketplace, assessment of cultural worth becomes monetized, public discourse crasser and more fragmented, all the well-known laments. But we need to be careful not to make realism into a self-confirming prophecy. There is an important difference between prediction and possibility. Only a fool would now predict a flourishing of liberal learning. But if we care about something it is wise to act on its possibility, even if the predictions look bad. Are you going to do what you do not care about just because people predict it is more likely than what you do care about? That won't be good for your sense of fulfillment.
Good. You have a point there. We're agreed about the predictions—they look bad for liberal learning. But tell me more about the possibility. What is this toolshed and why won't it get compressed to nothing between specialization and commercialization?
I'll do my best. I'll start with a very quick description of what might go into the toolshed and then we can talk about how and why it can flourish in the space between rampant research and celebrity culture.
Go to it!
Let's make the toolshed something like a high-quality personal library, but one not just with books, but with all sorts of media—books, images, music, video, all the different forms of multimedia.
Yeah, but you can get all that in both research libraries and community public libraries, and its all there on the Internet if you've got the time to dig it out.
True, and I don't want to knock either the public or the academic libraries. Both serve essential functions in our culture and should receive far more support than they do. But if we look closely at what they do, we will see a cultural function that neither does. As you say, it's there on the Internet, if we get it together to dig it out. In the digital commons, collaborating volunteers can develop a web-based, free-content toolshed to serve on-going study by everyone and anyone.
Tell me quickly how your Toolshed can configure what academic and public libraries aren't doing.
Sure. Neither serves inward, open-ended, personal self-formation all that well. With care, persons can turn academic and public libraries to facilitating their self-cultivation, of course, and with a good toolshed ubiquitously present online, suffusing cultural institutions of all sorts, those places would take on added power as a kind of makerspace for the inner life.
But why don't academic and public libraries just do that themselves?
They greatly help it along, but the toolshed will develop best by integrating and organizing many parts. We can do it in and through the digital commons for all to use.
Well let's save that claim for some other time. We don't have all day and I'd like to hear more about what this toolshed might be like. What is the function that you think academic and public libraries don't serve so effectively?
Great! I'll respond at first sketching in a Utopian spirit a full development of the function that we might judge possible if unfettered development were to take place in the digital commons. Then we can talk a bit about steps we might take to initiate the development.
What assumptions inform your Utopian hopes?
OK. What do you see in kids of different ages, pretty much independent of class, ethnicity, religion, economic condition, social origin?
Generally, they live with zest, test things out, explore, ask questions, try new things and practice things they like, invent games, pretend, make pictures and sing songs, emote and express themselves, learn things, day dream. If I were to sum it up, I'd say that kids want to express themselves to others and respond to other who express themselves to them.
I like the way you put it! What happens as the kids mature?
Ha! That's us, you big time. The mature live more serious lives. We spend more effort, focused effort, meeting needs, our own and those of others close to us and some distance from us. We narrow what we do and deepen it some with acquired skills. We form routines and habits. We adopt more realistic expectations. Too often we settle into an existence that offers compensating values, but usually at the cost of our acquiescing to to the stunting of many possibilities. The urge to express ourselves to others contracts and our response to others who express themselves to us narrows.
Well put as well. Do you think the expressive narrowing takes place inherently in growing older or does it happen largely through the force of constraining circumstances?
Hmm. I'm not sure I get the question fully. Doesn't growing older and maturing bring a lot of constraining circumstances?
Yes, but remember how the other day you were telling me about The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. I got a copy and it has deeply moved me. DeCarava's photographs and Hughes' character, Sister Mary Bradley, express the rich inner lives of persons who were mute and obscure in their narrowed enclave and make us want, impossibly, to express back to them our recognition that despite the distance of time and condition we come to feel with opened eyes.
OK. I'm beginning to see what you are after. The pictures and text reveal persons in their humanity, persons we would normally pass by, unperceived, or worse, perceived as some stereotype—as a social problem, a dangerous other, a threat to our complacent comfort. I guess you are going to ask why it took the collaboration of two great artists to make apparent the vitality of life in Harlem at that time. It's good to have great artists revealing that, but why does that seem necessary?
You're right, that's something I question. The vitality actually pulsates in the lives lived, in all the lives we live, and why is it that each—poor residents of Harlem in the 1940s and 50s and all of us in more advantaged circumstances, wherever and whenever we live—so rarely manifest the strength of our inner lives to ourselves and to those to whom our inner lives remain invisible? I don't question the art of the few, but the muteness of the many.
So you are going to suggest that the toolshed can somehow help make ordinary people, en masse, achieve more fulfilling lives through creative self-expression?
Well, not without great caution. Facebook has proven that a vanity publisher can preempt an astounding amount time and activity. Facebook, Twitter, and other instances of social software work by radically cutting back the affordances of tools for self-expression, putting the residue in easy-to-use packages.
So ease of use won't matter for the toolshed?
Don't leap to a mistaken conclusion! Good design has become rather ubiquitous. What sets programs apart is their scope and power relative to their controlling purpose. We will construct the toolshed by integrating free resources for supporting personal self-expression that have the maximum scope and power of use. We want to afford all persons free, open, and ongoing use of the tools for creative cultural expression suitable for attaining the highest levels of achievement.
Sounds good, but you are going to run into some problems. For one, "suitable for attaining the highest levels of achievement" sounds mighty elitist.
Yeah. Let's bite the bullet—A Place to Study will practice an elitist democratization. It is not an objectionable goal that everyone should have ongoing access to such resources. We should object to the way some of us have access to those tools, at least many of them, while most others do not. To work towards universal access, those who enjoy the access need to work to broaden it, not to apologize for it.
I agree, but we will face criticism from those who distrust our intentions as disguised efforts to strengthen existing inequalities.
True. I think we can meet that by offering up a start that makes a good faith effort to be inclusive and sets up procedures by which users can expand and reshape it according to their personal preferences and to further development of potential resources for incorporation in it. As you originally suggested, the initial toolshed will include many different resources, more on the scale of a large academic library, but it will facilitate open-ended personal use rather than more structured academic research.
I'd like to hear more about that difference, but not now. I'm also curious about the initial procedures for managing its ongoing development, but I'm meeting friends for lunch and have to go. I hope the toolshed works—it sounds like something I could use.

  1. Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)