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The top line.

December 8, 2009, 3:36 pm

In this era of bottom lines, Simon Sadler asks if we might not consider the other end of things.

Many faculty and students are stepping up to the plate this year to explain the bottom line on why public education is vital for our economy and for social justice. Is there also a way we can talk unabashedly about the top line, the improbable ambition of the institution, its libraries and labs and gardens and concerts, its saved lives in its hospitals and classrooms, unafraid of sounding elitist because the top line too is testament to UC’s splendid publicness?

Let there be light: not a bad pitch. Abstract. Benign, but grand. Secular, yet still echoing with religious thunder. It doesn’t short-sell the purpose of the UC. We are, however, feeling pressured to invent more positivist missions with greater customer orientation and more directly measurable outcomes—more bottom lines, in short, and fewer top lines.

Just as at the UC, senior administrators for the New York Public Library are working with consultants toward “reinventing” their institutional role. None of that, though, seemed to have got to our docent. He unhurriedly recounted the lessons the New York Public Library learned from the other great libraries since Alexandria, and stories of readers who’d come in off the street, read economics books, and gone from rags to riches, and he recalled tales of immigrants who’d been allowed to read books in their own languages denied them in the countries they had left, and he meditated on the depositing of materials for research not yet imagined. And through it all he was cannily reminding us that a choice had been made, and was still being made, between wonder and disenchantment.

There’s a beautiful little metaphor in that post, well worth the moment it will take you to read the small rest of it.

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