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.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 21, 2008 - ignorance is not a goal

After over half a century of life, study, intense social interaction, and careful thought, I have concluded ... that I don't know very much.

In my more optimistic moments, I think that might be good. Maybe I've finally UNlearned some things that were stopping me from seeing the world as it is.

In less optimistic moods, I think the truth is both simpler and scarier. The universe is a chaotic system. It CAN'T be understood.

But usually, I do think that learning is possible. I just don't think I'm a great example.

Take languages. I studied French for 3 years in high school. I got pretty good, I thought. I could read magazine articles and novels.

But I've mostly lost it (although my wife and I are talking about signing up for classes with the Alliance Francaise). When we went to Quebec City last year, I was nearly illiterate. I didn't like that part, although I DID like Quebec City.

My wife, I'm sure, will quickly surpass me. She took 5 years of French, and then she majored in Russian (which took her only 3 years). And when I met her, she was cataloging books and microfilms in 5 languages.

But that's ok. If you don't study things because other people are smarter than you, you never learn anything. There's always someone smarter.

Recently I got a call from a patron who accused me of working to make America a bilingual nation, by which he seemed to mean that the library has offered some Spanish language celebrations and classes over the years.

Let me make this perfectly clear: the library is overwhelmingly focused on the provision of American English materials and programs.

A tiny fraction of the over 150,000 items we added last year were in languages other than English (just 246 items in our juvenile area). Among our thousands of public programs are also a few that focus on other languages. But the vast majority are about getting preschoolers ready to learn to read ... English.

So we are not engaged in some deep conspiracy to displace English from our shelves or our culture.

On the other hand, here's the plain truth: when it comes to global competitiveness, Americans are doing a truly terrible job on the language front. The public library strikes me as a logical place to try to turn that around.

There's good news in our society. Our public schools have an exciting new Chinese language program. Might it be worthwhile to learn about the language spoken by more other native speakers than any on the planet? (Particularly if you might want to explore Asian business opportunities?)

A lot of folks in Colorado have business dealings, or take vacations, in Mexico or South America. They want to speak the local language there.

A tenet of my faith as a librarian is that reading about other people's lives -- other ages, other times, other cultures, other tongues -- is precisely how we grow as both individuals and as nations. The strongest nations don't live in isolation. They talk to each other.

Our language itself has become the world's most popular SECOND language worldwide exactly because of that: we steal other people's words. We have the only language on the globe that has, or needs, a thesaurus.

The way to make English strong is not by refusing to speak anything else. It's by enriching it with everything useful we can glean from everyone else, and using those assets in new ways.

Ignorance is our natural condition. But we don't have to settle for it.

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