Online Sources in the Classroom

15 August 2012

[A response to this post by James F. McGrath]

In 1995 I started my first personal webpage, which I used to publish information on ancient history. It was the beginning of the website that is now called Livius.org. One of the first pieces was a translation of the Behistun Inscription, which was almost immediately copied on the website of a major American university. Because I realized that my website was apparently useful, I decided to improve my articles by adding references to good books.

Somewhere in 1997 (if I recall correctly), I received an e-mail with a letter by four American universities, requesting me to stop adding these references, because my pages were copied by students and presented as assignments. Always wanting to help scholars, I obliged. This means that although I do my best to summarize the communis opinio, or to offer the best interpretation of a given text or event, no user can check the quality of my webpages.

Now the main point of science and scholarship is that the information is not just someone’s opinion, but that it is based on (a) established facts and (b) a well-understood explanatory model (hermeneutics, positivism, comparativism, narrativism, physics of society). And the main point of a popularizing website on ancient history is not that it presents the facts, but that it explains to the people that they must always check the facts and understand the explanatory model. By obliging to the universities’ request, and leaving out what was vital, I essentially killed my own website.

My website is, for me, some kind of open nerve. By trying to help the universities, I missed a chance to make something really useful. When the Dutch classicists and ancient historians offered me an award, I had very, very mixed feelings. Of course a compliment is nice, but people who offer a scholarly award to a website that does not meet the basic requirements, prove that they do not understand what explaining history to a larger audience is all about. That rather diminished the value of the compliment, and I was happier when the Dutch classicists and historians invited me to a meeting to explain a couple of things.

If students cannot check the information – if they cannot know how the facts have been established and which explanatory model is used – students must avoid a website. That’s the first basic lesson. This means that in the present situation, students must just avoid the internet and check their library. Books are a far better source of reliable information.

But there is a more important thing. There used to be a time, not so long ago, that the universities “sent out” information, which society “received”. This is the “sender-receiver model”. The internet now  offers society a possibility to talk back: the “debate model”. Look at the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars. Communication of scientific and scholarly information has become a debate, and occasionally a shouting match.

In the perfect situation, a bona fide scholar and an activist will both refer to their sources, and can establish what is correct – or comes closest to being correct. Unfortunately, there is no level playing field. After all, bona fide scholarly articles are to be found on pay sites, so in an online debate, the bona fide scholar cannot refer to them.

An example can be found in my own country, where we used to have a minister of Education, Culture, and Science named Maria van der Hoeven, who is on record with some favorable remarks about Intelligent Design. We learned that the woman responsible for our higher education did not understand what the “incompleteness of a theory” meant. There were many publications by professional biologists and other scientists, and there were evangelical Christians who defended the minister. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if I now want to find information about this, I can easily find the Christian information, while the other publications are all behind pay walls. You get the impression that she is the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists. Their voices have been silenced. The second basic lesson about online information is that as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good. And to some fields of research, the damage is already done.

To sum up: at this moment there is no good reason why students should use the internet. Let’s face it: the internet has failed.


Citizens and Scholars

28 February 2012

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]


Why the Humanities Matter

27 February 2012

Why study classics? For Wolf and Von Humboldt, the men who organized the study of Antiquity, the answer was obvious: by learning Greek, we learned to think like a Greek, and became as original, creative, and brilliant. However, this assumed the existence of a link between language and thought, which was already challenged by Schleiermacher, and rightly so.

Later historians argued that there are long continuities: western civilization started in Greece, where ideas came into being that still influence our culture. The rise of the social sciences has made this theory problematic, although it is often repeated in popular culture (e.g., in the comics 300). Others try to see the relevance of Antiquity by comparing it to the present, but this too is problematic (example). Still others have used the past to create a national identity, but invariably, those national identities turn out to be identical to the identity of the modern student, and ignore the complexities of identity formation, both ancient and modern.

The truth is that Antiquity is not terribly important. Theories like the ones above are only repeated to make political claims (e.g., Anthony Pagden, who connects Marathon to the War on Terror) or to make sure that the department of classics continues to receive money.

This means that the past itself suffers, because it is supposed to serve modern needs. History then becomes a procrustean bed. By concentrating on Greece, ancient historians abandoned the Near East, cutting off a part; by comparing the ancients to us, we are overstretching the evidence; by looking at the past as a national past, we ignore its complexities, cutting it short again.

Does this mean that the study of Antiquity is unimportant too? On the contrary! Ancient historians have often been in the advance guard of scholarship.

  • The way Politian dealt with texts, inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and caused the Reformation.
  • When Scaliger started to study ancient chronology, he discovered that the Bible is not to be taken literally, and caused the secularisation of our world view. Without Scaliger, no Enlightenment.
  • The discovery of the relations between languages has shaped the way we define nationality.
  • The Lachmann method was the model of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • Frazer’s hypotheses about human sacrifice influenced decision-making in the years prior to the First World War.
  • The simplistic exegesis of Tacitus’ Germania gave rise to the Aryan myth.
  • Archaeologists have given us a Prehistory, and offered evidence for the hypothesis that human history is defined by progress.

Antiquity itself may not be terribly important, but the study of the past certainly is. Unfortunately, that what makes scholars real specialists – the epistemological foundation of their discipline, in other words – is hardly ever discussed. If the study of Antiquity is to survive, we need better books, in which our specialism is better explained. We also need to explain ourselves to a larger audience.

[to be continued]