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.