I did a research session for an education class just after the second presidential debate. No better object lesson than to imbue in students how the skills we learn in doing research for academic papers be be applied outside of the library’s walled garden into the wild, wild web, a piece of inspiration I received during a char booth lecture last year. The session was energetic, the students invested. And then it came up, “did you always want to be a librarian?”

No. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a librarian; I didn’t even think about becoming one until I was in grad school studying history. I had this other life before becoming a librarian, historian. Then it also hit me; I wasn’t always ‘technically’ a librarian, I was an archivist. In a sense, since graduating from Smith College in 2004, I’ve had three careers; grad student, archivist, librarian. How did I manage those transitions? I leaned on my liberal arts training to retrain myself to learn the skills I needed to attack the tasks at hand. Or, as I said to the professor, “no one can repossess my education; I’ve always been able to make sense out of my world and learn what I need to learn to keep going.”

Which brings me to this article by Cathy Davidson forwarded to me by a colleague at Mount Holyoke while I was walking back to the library and this quote:

“The new liberal arts curriculum I am advocating is about the ability to learn, the ability to learn any time, any where, to have the skills and the networks and the communities and the practices and the introspective capacities to see what you need to get you beyond your old habits and cultivate new ones that serve you better.”

The research education that I’m providing for my students isn’t just how to do research for a paper or how to use this tool to complete this project, but a framework about how to effectively seek new information to learn new skills. In a changing economy, college educations shouldn’t be the training for just the next five years, but the methods, networks, and support to sustain people for the next fifty.

But this quote was the most pressing for me:

“That should be the starting point of educational reform. The quest to give every graduate the tools to fight off ignorance. In a changing world, ignorance is only one technology away. “

As everything changes, we can’t just teach people ‘just in time’ skills, but we need to teach students to be able to teach themselves new skills ‘just in time’ to use them. Without a robust framework to seek and evaluate information, our students will not be able to reinvent themselves ten or twenty years out of college. And then what?

I get fired up about higher education and librarianship because I truly believe that going to college can change one’s life. It’s not just about future earnings or rooting for a football team, but sense making, equipping students with the tools to reinvent themselves and lead meaningful lives. The same skills we impart on students to apply in their research papers are the same ones we need them to apply later in life when they need to decide how to vote. College is all about expanding one’s world, learning in global context, learning to live with ambiguity, and asking new questions. Cathy Davidson is absolutely right, “If we can recast the liberal arts curriculum to train resilient global citizens, we will be offering the most valuable education imaginable.”