Philistines at the Gate

You talk about adults who should know better making block-headed decisions. There is a piece in today’s Boston Globe by reporter David Abel bearing the startling news that a prep school here in Massachusetts, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham--to all intents and purposes right in my own backyard--has announced that it is going bookless, and not wasting any time, either. That’s right, this private institution that has purportedly been preparing young people for the demands, challenges, and rigors of college and beyond has determined that printed books not only are irrelevant to what they claim to be doing to help shape minds and characters, but totally disposable as well.

Lock, stock, and barrel, and without so much as engaging the opinions of the faculty and staff, some  20,000 books--a pretty skimpy collection to begin with, I must say, for a place of learning that has been around since 1865, which leads me to believe they’re been thinning out materials for quite some time as it is--is being tossed. Not to the landfill, mind you, that would be too overtly contemptuous, but out the door all the same, the shelves to be replaced with--get this--a “learning center” equipped with three flat-screen televisions and a cluster of “lap-top friendly study carrels.”  The really big news is the $50,000 coffee shop that is going in, complete with a $12,000 cappuccino machine. Talk about providing nourishment for the mind.

“When I look at books, I seen an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,” headmaster James Tracy told the Globe. “This isn’t Fahrenheit 451. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.”

You have to ask, of course, who the “we” is here. The school’s librarian, Liz Vezina, was understandably cautions in her comments, but the thrust of what she had to say is clear enough.”It makes me sad. I’m going to miss them. I’ve grown up with them, and there’s something lost when they’re virtual. There’s a sensual side to them--the smell, the feel, the physicality of a book is something really special.” Alexander Coyle, chairman of the history department, spoke for a number of his colleagues with these words: “A lot of us are wondering how this changes the dignity of the library, and why we can’t move to increase digital resources while keeping the books.”

I’m just taking a wild guess here, but I would lay very good odds that Ms. Vezina and Mr. Coyle are voices that were summarily dismissed by Tracy and his administrative colleagues.when they agreed to dissolve the library. But hey, not to fret: Tracy said the school is springing $10,000 on some Amazon Kindles to have available, should any of the youngsters have a yen to read a Shakespeare play, let’s say, or a Toni Morrison novel.

For what’ it’s worth, foolishness like this has been attempted before, and it’s failed miserably. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts decided to  go bookless too. Lucky for them they joined what became the Five College Consortium, which allowed the Hampshire undergraduates to borrow what they needed from Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, something they did--and continue to do--in large numbers. I wrote about this in A Splendor of Letters; by that time, there was a real library--with real books--functioning on campus.

But that, at least, was on the college level. I have to assume that youngsters applying for admission to Hampshire back then had to demonstrate a facility with books. You wonder what some admissions officer at Harvard, UCLA, Emory, or the University of Michigan--just about any accredited college or university out there, really--is going to think about an applicant from a secondary school that does not require its students to read books at all. But I’m sure the administrators at Cushing have given that a lot of thought, too. Make me another cappuccino, please--and stay tuned.
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