This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, March 24, 1993

March 24, 1993 - the importance of public institutions

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the challenges faced by public schools and public libraries. Some of those challenges are technological -- as in the increasing presence and power of personal computers and "teaching software."

For public schools and public libraries both, this new technology holds great promise. On the other hand, new tools are only useful if people can get to them.

This leads me to a second category of challenges: the issue of access to information.

Some parents choose to educate their children at home, and are able to dedicate sufficient time and resources to that end. And as I've mentioned in previous columns, home schooling parents do a strikingly good job.

Too, some fortunate families have enough money and expertise to purchase and make use of various kinds of computer equipment and services. These families will have an "information edge" -- a powerful path to personal and professional advancement.

But some parents are not able to teach their children at home. Some households have only one parent -- and that parent must work. Sometimes parents have their own severe educational deficiencies. There are many other economic, educational, or personal factors that might make homeschooling -- or private schooling, for that matter -- impracticable or impossible for a particular family.

Similarly, many parents will find the costs of computers, modems, phone lines, and electronic subscription fees, far beyond their reach.

For such people, public schools and public libraries are essential if we don't want to create a new subclass of society -- the "information poor," the people who will only know what TV tells them.

There is yet another challenge. In brief, I believe we have lost a clear national consensus on the role of our public entities. The national trend toward tax limitation, the new focus on "entrepreneurial" or business-oriented government, the increasing involvement of the business community in public education, all reveal a profound dissatisfaction -- or misunderstanding -- of the purpose and processes of the public sector.

Nowhere is this crisis as obvious as with our public schools.

In many respects public schools have become the dumping ground of our national conscience. If children aren't fed well enough at home, then schools must launch nutrition programs. If there's a problem with parental work schedules, then schools must provide extended daycare.

Yet somehow, schools are still expected to teach, to provide the basic cultural knowledge necessary to communicate with others, and to thrive.

Before any institution can succeed, it must maintain a clear focus on just what its job is. I fear that we have overloaded our public school system with unrealistic expectations, made of it a mishmash of conflicting purposes.

Yet I remain optimistic about public education -- whose fate, I believe, is closely tied to public libraries.

Public schools and public libraries remain the keys to self- improvement. They provide a series of opportunities for accomplishment -- whatever the socio-economic background or age of the individual. Alone among our public institutions, they help level the cultural and economic playing field.

There is certainly room for improvement in both public schools and public libraries. But as we poke and prod these institutions, we must also remember to preserve their inherent democracy, and to resist the many attempts to confound their purposes -- because there is nothing in the private sector that will or can replace them.

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