Cushing Academy, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, looks like a traditional New England prep school. It boasts the ivied halls, the well-kempt playing fields, a venerable pedigree dating back to 1865. Like the unhappy scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, however, this bastion of respectable secondary education evidently lacks a brain.

That, as any rate, is what we surmise from the academy’s decision to do away with its library and all of its books.

Yes, you read that aright. Thomas Parkman Cushing, who originally endowed the school, was careful to stipulate that it be provided, in addition to other accoutrements befitting an educational establishment, with a “suitable library.” James Tracy, the current headmaster, finds the whole idea of a library, and the objects they traditionally contain, positively quaint. Speaking to The Boston Globe, he actually said, apparently without embarrassment, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.” (Did someone whisper, “Barbarian!”? Where is Cushing’s Board of Trustees? Don’t they realize what a disaster this shortsighted capitulation to trendiness is for the school?)

According to the Globe, Cushing is “one of the first schools in the country to abandon its books.” Can we hope that it will also be one of the last? In pursuit of a “bookless campus,” Cushing is disburdening itself of its library’s 20,000 books and spending $500,000 to establish a “learning center”—the name, the Globe reports, is tentative, but whatever they settle on you can be sure the scare quotes will be appropriate. Of course, once you dump a library’s books, you have a lot of extra space to fill, so Cushing (tuition, room, and board $42,850, plus a $1,500 “technology fee”) will be spending $42,000 for some large flat-screen monitors to display data from the Internet as well as $20,000 for “laptop-friendly” study carrels. In place of the reference desk, the Globe reports, Cushing is building “a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.” So, at a moment when American students are positively inundated with various forms of electronic media competing for, and eroding, their attention, an institution entrusted with (in Thomas Cushing’s words) “strengthening and enlarging the minds of the rising and future generations” decides to jettison one of civilization’s most potent aids in furthering that project. Fifty grand per annum for a school without books. Good work!

Headmaster Tracy, dazzled by all those colored lights and promises of painless instant enlightenment, has betrayed his responsibility as an educator. He has thrown his lot in with the party of “Now,” heedless of the fact that education must embrace the past if it is to prepare for the future. We are reminded of the fellow who, years ago when computers were first becoming a force in schools and universities, put about a rumor of a new device of unimagined sophistication. It promised to put the world’s knowledge at your finger tips. It was small enough to fit in your hands, light enough to be carried anywhere. It required no power apart from human curiosity. It was called the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge, or BOOK for short. It is unfortunate that headmaster Tracy didn’t think to acquire some to put next to his new cappuccino machine.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 2, on page 1
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