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Andy Stern

Last night we went to a reading—really, a talk by Andy Stern, president of SEIU, who is touring for his book A Country That Works. Stern is one of the most intriguing figures in the American labor movement. SEIU is one of the few unions to have gained membership the past several years, in large part because it has put significant resources into organizing. Organizing was one of the primary reasons given, in fact, when SEIU left the AFL-CIO two years ago, and since then Stern’s profile has grown more prominent. He has worked to change the ways labor is often thought of. Last night he gave his standard “Together, we can change the world” speech, most of which I’m sure is catalogued in the book. (“It has a conservative cover,” K remarked when we sat down; I agreed, and thought it’s because he wants a larger audience than those already sympathetic to labor.) It was a small audience, and when we walked in, before I had even taken off my coat, he had introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Andy.” Dressed in purple shirt and matching sweater, he wasn’t nearly as smarmy as a small town pastor when you visit his church on Sunday.

Stern’s basic points—that America needs labor to curb income inequality; that employer-based health care is unsustainable; that unions need to globalize in ways akin to the business world—are easy to agree with. His arguments, though basically right, seemed ideologically flat. Those who are passionate about change will provide the energy for it, he said, with emphasis on passion but only as a means to an end. Passion because the cause is right and because it is just was hardly on his mind. I too am a pragmatist (so I’ve been told), but I think I come to it from a different place than Stern—or at least than he seemed to come from last night. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his ideas for education. It is fine to argue, for students’ sake, that smaller schools are best—it’s the right argument to make. It is another thing entirely to assert that education ought to be overhauled entirely by setting students free on the Internet to find what they need and relegating teachers to spend their time acting as support staff for their Internetting charges. He really said the Internet can teach us all. His vision is of a world in which libraries are obsolete, subsumed by a Google search. It’s a frightening vision, however, and it runs entirely counter to the fact that libraries become more valuable in information ages and it forgets that they are crucial to democratic systems. Why not envision instead a future in which libraries, no longer yesterday’s monoliths of storage, serve as the hubs of the service economy, serving all citizens equally? I’ve little patience for the kind of techno-salvation that Stern offered last night. He’s an organizer of people; he should know better that it is people who change the world.

 

Comments

he seems to like purple

is purple a union color, or is it the color of the SEIU?

It’s SEIU’s.

Ah, the library death speech. How original.

It strikes me that the only people who believe the death of the library is impending are those who’ve never had access to a good one.

It was more an idle wondering in the talk, not a full-fledged prophecy, but that’s precisely what I thought, too. His son was his archetype for the digital age: he was a bit of a quiet one in school, but would go home, go online, and find anything he could imagine. Hence, dead libraries.

You know, G, I’m surprised you left out Stern’s most exciting proposition for technology-based education reform: let Oprah lecture to the students instead of the teachers! That gave me a shiver, I tell you.

No offense, Oprah, if you’re reading this.

Don’t you know she’s a regular around here? She goes by “JH.”

Still, I’m surprised I left that out, too—it was quite hair-raising.

I’d respond to this pernicious outing of my true identity, but I have an orgy to attend.

Give Steadman my regards.

And Greg, if Andy Stern has perfected the death of the library speech, you have clearly perfected the stroking the egos of the librarians speech.

I grant you, I learned probably as much from the library as I did from school, but I learned things (think algebra) at school that the library and the internets would have been unlikely to teach me had I been left to my own devices.

What can I say? I know my readers.

My somewhat good-sized hometown’s public library was rather bad, and I had little encouragement to make use of it anyway: as a public office, while its use was not discouraged, it wasn’t seen as a vital resource either. Likewise, frustratingly enough, my first university’s library. The library in the town where my dad lived I used frequently, but not until I moved to IC did I meet a community that valued its library’s use. I can see how growing up here it would become a habit. I’m enough of a book fetishist that I still enjoy owning the books I read, but there are more books that I want to read than I can afford to buy: ergo, library!

i guess i found it kind of strange that AS would suggest the demise of libraries (and books in the classroom) in a bookstore—an independent bookstore, no less—filled with people who, uh, like books and don’t want to just stare at the internet all day (um, at least not every day). not that you can’t stare at the internet all day at the library, but you know what i mean.