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September 16, 2008

Leadership

In several of my previous political posts, I've mentioned that I value education highly as compared with experience when evaluating candidates.  This actually ties in quite a bit with some thoughts I've had regarding library leadership, so I thought I'd expound on the topic some.

Not to sound like a elitist or anything, but I believe that a college education, particularly graduate level education, does a lot to prepare a person for positions in, say, politics...or librarianship.  It doesn't really matter to me WHAT the degree is in, but the mental training involved is something I feel is particularly important.  Graduate level courses require you to present arguments, to evaluate multiple sides of an issue, enhance your critical thinking skills, to be be skeptical, to be curious.  A graduate degree helps you to become an expert in a certain area, but to also see the big picture of your field.

One of the reasons I find Barack Obama's resume so attractive is his years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago.  I believe this shows an insight and passion into the foundation of our nation's government that goes beyond party lines.  When one is a specialist in any topic, one dissects it, puts it back together, researches its origins and history, understands it inside and out.  As I'm reading The Audacity of Hope, I see evidence of this understanding.  Obama articulates very well the pathways our government has taken to reach this point, he describes both Republican and Democrat points of view, and he presents informed, educated ideas for change, based on historical and constitutional precendent.  If he is elected president, I am confident that his oath to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America will be a sincere and devout one.  I would feel very uneasy about someone being President without having that knowledge and understanding of the Constitution, and I definitely feel uncertain about someone who doesn't possess the critical thinking skills and open mind that a graduate education can give.

I have never claimed to have a particular respect for my own graduate degree - as graduate programs go, mine was definitely on the fluffy side.  Nevertheless, I gained a lot of very valuable insight and knowledge into my chosen profession.  I learned more about the history, the foundations of librarianship, the underlying ethics and philosophies.  I had worked in libraries for 11 years, but despite that experience, I had never really understood the Big Picture.  My graduate degree taught me to look at librarianship and libraries in a completely different way, and because of this, I can view my field in context, I can look at the past, and I can think positively about the future.

In my own experience, I've known several people who have decades of experience working in libraries, but have never been able to put their work into a larger context, have never been able to see how their particular cog works on their gear, and how that gear helps the whole library machine keep running.  I believe that that education, that graduate degree, is vital to truly understanding librarianship as a profession and libraries as an entity.  Does it need to be a library degree?  I'm not so sure, and I think that the library degree, in general, has a long way to go to be a more valuable graduate program.

Now, I am certainly not saying that experience ISN'T important. To me, the most impressive thing about John McCain's resume is his 22 years as a United States Senator.  This experience says to me that he understands how our government works, he knows the system.  I've no doubt that he is fully competent to be president, even if I disagree with him on most issues.  I'd hate to see someone with no experience in Washington or no understanding of how the governmental machine chugs along become president.

Similarly, I see a trend, in my library at least, that concerns me about experience.  Librarians, in general, do not have supervisory responsibilities below the department head level.  Most of the supervisors in the library are paraprofessionals - very compentent, intelligent, and capable people, and I want to emphasize here that I think they're excellent at what they do.  What concerns me, though, is that librarians frequently get promoted or moved into leadership positions without having had to supervise anyone before.  Just because someone is an excellent reference librarian, or departmental liaison, or acquisitions librarian does not mean that they will be a great Department Head.  In this case, it doesn't matter if a librarian has a great idea or a clear vision of the library's future if they don't know how to communicate it to their staff.  It's meaningless for a librarian to understand the underlying ethics behind a library's service mission if they can't write a disciplinary evaluation for a slacking employee.  Library leadership is more than just a degree and mad l33t googling skillz.  Having good management skills is something that requires experience.  It seriously frightens me that a department head, library director, or dean can be placed in those positions of authority WITHOUT ever having supervised someone before.

I think that this is something that our current leaders really need to consider when looking at the future of our library, and of libraries in general.  I'm not sure what the answer to this problem is - but I don't think promoted inexperienced supervisors past middle-management into library administrative duties is the right way to go.

I also don't mean to say that just because someone has a graduate degree, it means they are excellent critical thinkers, or more open minded.  While I believe that advanced education teaches students these skills, everyone is different.  Some people go through grad school without ever learning how to present an argument, or ever looking at more than one side of an issue. Or, after being out of school for a period of time, they become lazy and complacent in their thinking.  After all, our current president has an M.B.A. from Harvard, and it doesn't seem to have honed his mental skills particularly well.


4 comments:

  1. I agree with you to a certain extent--after all, this is coming from a chick who married a guy now working on his sixth college degree and his third graduate one!--but I think too much time in academia can be as much of a problem as too little. For instance, the gaffe of Obama's that got the most press was his comment about rural Pennsylvania voters "clinging to guns and religion", ostensibly because their jobs went away. This is a Marxist idea: that economic concerns are supreme and all other values flow from them. Ask rural Pennsylvanian church-goers why they go and I doubt they will say it is because their steel mill laid them off, but an academic can retort that such an uneducated person doesn't understand their own motivations. Spend too much time swirling around the academic bowl and you can't become overly enamored with your own logic and invest too much in "grand ideas" that look great on paper, but can often result in real life misery. Hence the recent "Socialists for Obama" who want to emphasize their brand of socialism has nothing to do whatsoever with communist Russia, or any other failed socialist experiment. Because, of course, if those "experiments" weren't true socialism, then socialism still has a chance to prove itself in the world. The "real" academic idea hasn't been tried yet.

    Now I've made a few Obama references here, but I genuinely don't believe his education is knock against him in any way. By all means, let our presidents be educated! But this is where experience becomes important in partnership with education: some experiments have failed and attempting to revive them because all you've ever seen is the idea on paper (and it looked real good there!) means you are likely dooming another generation to another failure. Social experiments have real life costs and those costs are almost always people. A person in a position of power needs both education and the experience to know where education falls short.

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  2. Well said. Generally, I have always been an advocate of experience over education, but perhaps that is because I could never stick with anything long enough to graduate.

    Graduate education is a bit different though. If a person has successfully completed a graduate program then it is more likely that they have a desire for further knowledge and a passion for their subject of choice.

    Obama's years of teaching constitutional law should certainly have given him an in depth understanding of what our forefathers originally intended for our country and how to preserve those rights. I'll take that over additional years in congress any day!

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  3. Obviously I agree with you that education is important, and I agree that experience is important.

    I don't believe either is good enough alone, but if I had to choose one over the other, I would choose education; an educated person will usually have some means to deal with the unexpected, whereas a person with specific experience will unlikely be able to deal with something from outside that experience.

    Experience alone will to lead to "gut" reactions that don't have anything but a single person's experiences to back them up.

    Education alone will lead to acting on theory rather than application, except that much advanced education is not just about theory, but also about application of that theory.

    With respect to Obama vs. McCain:

    I do not see any education in McCain's views, simply experience in the senate (and, as we are often reminded, in a box in Vietnam). He was, a few months ago, proud to know nothing about the economy (http://conservativepolitics.today.com/2008/02/01/top-10-reasons-why-sen-mccain-still-needs-to-be-educated-on-economics/)--this is not a website that I endorse; I chose it because it's an untra-conservative website that quotes him.

    His gut reactions have been shown to be wrong time and again (on Iraq, on Wall Street, on the idea that tax cuts increase revenues, on offshore drilling and its effect on gas prices, on whether it's important to know how to use a computer--the most important tool of the 21st century, on health care, and these are just recent examples. If we go back in his history, the Keating Five jumps up, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Robert Bork as a Supreme Court Justice, etc.; examples across the spectrum of politics).

    Obama has great education, but his experience is repeatedly questioned. While it is true that he doesn't have executive experience, neither does McCain. So, what makes him more qualified (in my eyes) to be president? For one, he doesn't act on his "gut" and make decisions without thinking through the implications. While there may be times when quick decisions are needed, most national and international problems will require the president to consult with advisors; snap reactions are for those on the battlefield, during rescue operations after natural disasters, etc. That's not what a president does; a president makes it possible for those on the ground to get their jobs done. I believe an educated person is more likely to surround themselves with experts in relevant fields.

    As we've experienced in the past eight years, a man who disdains education will not surround himself with educated people and will end up making stupid, rash decisions. McCain is someone who is more like Bush than like Roosevelt (as he's recently been trying to make himself out to be--he's no Teddy; TR called for universal health care and national health insurance, was for labor unions, was for regulation of big business, etc., etc., etc.). McCain's more likely to just make a snap decision than to ask an advisor for an opinion or to think about the long-term implications of that decision.

    Obama believes in education and wants to spread the richness of life you gain from it to everyone. Obama's experience in Illinois as a community organizer certainly makes him more qualified to speak about and understand the struggles of the average people of the US.

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  4. Mara & Moses - I definitely believe that a combination of education and experience is preferable when possible. I certainly know academics who completely out of touch with the real world (though you certainly can't say they don't know their field!), as well as experienced people who can't learn anything beyond their experience.

    I have to agree with Moses' rationale, though, that when given an either/or choice, I would choose education. Unless the experience was a lot more relevant (such as actually having BEEN president).

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