Citizens and Scholars

In my previous post, I explained why the study of Antiquity matters. However, if you take a look at the list of reviews in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (here), you get an idea what ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists are actually investigating. It’s not a pleasant sight. The man in the street will regard most subjects as completely irrelevant. It is almost never explained how the grand theories of the humanities shape our society (see previous post again). Sometimes, the subjects are given relevance either by making comparisons or by postulating continuities, but the rise of the social sciences has made both approaches problematic.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the humanities are under attack; here is what British philosopher Alain De Botton has to say about it. I have read apologies for the study of the liberal arts, and although there is much in them I can agree with, I also find them ultimately unconvincing. If you want financial support for an educational system and a scholarly discipline, the results must be accessible to anyone, at every intellectual level.

So, the first priority must be that the man in the street get access to the results, but there are few good books that explain what the study of Antiquity is really about. Of course there are books that present the bare facts, but those who have become enthusiastic and want to know how we know these facts, are left empty-handed. I was shocked to discover that I am the first ancient historian in Holland to write a book about the Lachmann method, processual archaeology, hermeneutics, comparativism, and so on for a larger audience.

As long as scholars present only their conclusions, and do not explain how they arrive at them, people will be left with the impression that the study of the past is something easy. It is apparently just telling a story, with references to sources and excavations. Of course it is not as simple as that, but as long as ancient historians refuse to explain their method, they are preparing the way for quack historians.

However, the situation is actually even worse. I have assumed that the facts themselves are well presented, but this is probably too optimistic. Over here in Holland, there’s a professional historian who has written a book containing – if I have counted correctly – no less than 253 factual errors. None of his colleagues seems to have been alarmed, as they ought to have been: the mistakes are easy to recognize and readers may be pardoned for having a low opinion of the classics.

So here we are: people have to pay taxes to enable others to experience all the joys and delights of scholarship, and they have to pay a second time – this time to JSTOR – if they want to know the results. At the same time, scholars do not explain what they are actually doing. Nor do they explain how their ideas shape society. The current system is, to put it bluntly, an insult to those people especially who are most interested.

[to be continued]

One Response to Citizens and Scholars

  1. The lack of public access to classics and humanities articles on JSTOR is indeed an insult. Ok, I get that the journals need to make some money, but why are articles which are years or decades old still restricted? As you rightly say, in many cases they’ve been paid for already, by our taxes. Just the other day I was having a discussion about medieval herbals with someone who was interested. At some point he asked me – “but is this just speculation, or is it backed by research? can I see it?”. I had to tell him it was out there all right – but hidden behind JSTOR’s paywall. People outside don’t even know the research exists, let alone what the results are, because they can’t see it for themselves. No wonder they have little respect for it.

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