Idealist vs pragmatist?

TutoringI recently came across the book “College libraries and the student culture”, edited by Duke and Asher. Chapter two of this book asks the question: how do librarians look at students? Do we have a pragmatist or an idealist perspective?

The pragmatist view is described as looking at higher education first and formost as a road to a profession (to train workers for the society) and to enrich the society. The idealist (or “liberal-progressive”) view is  described as someone “who support […] that the university is about self-actualization and the creation and dissemination of ideas” (Thill 2012, p. 15). Thill (ibid.) argues that many librarians take easier to the idealist view of things, and therefore have trouble adopting to the increasing mass of students with the pragmatic view. According to a survey, 25 percent of students give “making a good salery after graduation” as their main reason for entering college. Another 58 percent state “career plans” or “desire to move ahead with their lives” as main reasons for getting a college education. Only 6 percent say that they entered college because they like to “learn for learning`s sake” (p. 16). These numbers do not surprise me at all. After all, how can we suppose that many students should have idealist reasons for entering college? It costs a lot of money and they have never done it before (and therefore cannot have an idea on how it can change them).

Thill (2012) writes about how we view the students effects the way we treat them. If we see the students as having the pragmatist view, the role of the librarian is one of a service-provider to a customer. If they have an idealist perspective, our role is an educator and guide. Some faculty with a pragmatic perspective found that librarians find it hard to just give the students what they need (“consierge-type information delivery” as one librarian dubbed it):

“All to often librarians give people more information than they actually need to be able to answer the questions that they have. And that`s frustrating because sometings people are simply looking for a small set of numbers or a specific source and librarians tend to offer much more than what they`re being asked” (p.25) said one faculty member. While others who were interviewed in the study said that a librarian apply these “time-saving” ideas (hand them the information “on a silver platter”(p.26)) actually undermine both the pragmatists and the idealists. So – I guess it`s a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don`t” here.

I think I am both a pragmatist and an idealist. I fully understand students who are tied to the college reward system (grades, degrees..). It is perfectly natural that they should have this view. I was one myself. That doesn`t mean that I think that all we should do is provide the students with the skills they would need in a profession here and now. If that was all we might as well just send them out into the profession with a mentor straight after high school. There are so many things that I have learned through my studies that have nothing to do with my profession, but that has had an impact on my work- and social life. Much of what I learned is probably tacit knowledge, but I know that I went through a maturing period – and something happened to the way that I see my own little role in the society, my profession and society itself. Call it a cultivation of the mind, or a formation of the self (I am always searching for a good English translation of the Norwegian word “danning”. Still haven`t found it..) – anyway, it was learning for learning`s sake, too.

The way I see it, sometimes I have to be a “concierge information delivery”-person; someone who just points to the right source, but most of the time I can be someone who asks the right questions to students. Student: “Is this a peer-reviewed article?” Me: “Here are the principles we talked about in class. Try to use the principles and explain to me why you think it is/is not peer-reviewed.What do you think?” The only way that I can serve both the teachers (who give assigments) and the students (who can often look for the “instant gratification” way out) is to balance my two views.


Thrill, M. (2012) Pragmatism and Idealism in the Academic Library: An Analysis of Faculty and Librarian Expectations and Values In: Duke, L. M. and A. D. Asher (2012) College Libraries and Student Culture: What we now know. Chicago: American Library Association.

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