Links of concern

I don’t want to get unnecessarily doom-saying but there’s been a few seriously worrying ideas for the field propounded on the Interweb just lately. The first I noticed was a post at Livius, a blog I didn’t know before but which I was pointed at by this post at Glossographia, explaining that there is good basis to think that most of the misinformation in history and classics is created not by amateur pseudo-scholars but by we ourselves the experts, talking out of our field. Well, this is something I would have to admit to, and this paragraph gave me the guilt chills:

The second consequence of specialization is that no one is sufficiently trained to teach. For example, it can happen that someone who knows everything about the crisis of the third century, must introduce first-year students to the basic outline of ancient history. Because this teacher cannot know everything about every specialization, it is likely that he will offer an outdated account, say, of the Peloponnesian War. Many books written for the larger audience suffer from the same weakness.

More specifically, however, the author points out that while we hide genuine scholarly work behind pay-walls and everything else is flung on the Internet for free, we can’t be surprised if people read what’s there rather than what’s kept from them. Here I think there is a genuine issue, which lies somewhere between revenue protection and gatekeeping, both of which might be necessary (note the lack of indicative there) but neither of which are exactly noble in a discipline that prides itself on promoting free thought. So I would recommend a read of it.

Secondly, you may have seen the plea from Neville of the eponymous Combate for people to get on board a petition that he plugged here to protect the Asturian area of Carondio from development for wind-farms. Now, I recognise that wind-farms are probably most of what is going to be done about renewable energy for the next few years, more’s the pity, and that they therefore have to go somewhere, but, this is not the place. And I don’t just mean because, as Neville believes, there may be a political agenda slighting non-Roman pre-Asturian remains here; I don’t know about that though if the idea intrigues you, this is largely what Neville is combating. I mean because the country’s courts have already decided this development should not go ahead for reasons of the damage to the historical environment, and this verdict is not being enforced and the building work going ahead anyway. So if you feel like interfering in someone else’s country, you’re unlikely to get a more justifiable cause than this. Also, Neville’s choice of illustration for his post is absolutely bloody perfect. So go have a look: the petition text is in English, if that’s what bothering you.

Lastly, is it just me or has this guy’s quite compelling argument about what constitutes modernity just unhinged a good chunk of our commnest arguments about the so-called `relevance’ of the Middle Ages to the modern world? I keep telling people we have to concentrate on the interest value itself… This link via Cliopatria, where some day I’m sure I will have something to add once more.

16 responses to “Links of concern

  1. The argument about the nature of modernity doesn’t strike me as either particularly new or radical. But it has been a long time since I believed in European exceptionalism as the root of all good/evil.

    • I like it mainly because it could support, but does not rely on, Jared Diamond’s polemic in Guns, Germs and Steel (though I suppose that Diamond would say it does rely on it in as much as it relies on materials, which I’m not sure I buy given how much of those materials were imported by the leading engineering countries). But it may also appeal because of sounding fearfully steampunk.

  2. On the modernity thing, I’m afraid I hit this point:
    This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past
    and stopped reading, since it ignores: a) beliefs in the coming eschaton and future paradise, beliefs as strong in the Middle Ages as they are now (whether in Fundamentalist or Hegelian form); b) the persistent cross-generational nostalgia for childhood, which is one of the roots, I think, of belief in the golden age.

    He also speaks of the European overthrowing of the absolute authority of hereditary rulers as among the causes of modernity…but given that the claim of the divine right of kings belongs most strongly to the postmedieval era in European kingship (see, for example, what happened to Richard II when he argued for ‘absolute authority’), well….

    basically, there are some claims about science, and, sure, science matters, but his knowledge of the rest of the Middle Ages is as bad as that of the inept teacher of ancient Hellenic warfare.

    • I’ll grant you the Eschatological point (I prefer to stand further from the end of the world than that :-) ) but I’m not so sure about this:

      He also speaks of the European overthrowing of the absolute authority of hereditary rulers as among the causes of modernity… but given that the claim of the divine right of kings belongs most strongly to the postmedieval era in European kingship (see, for example, what happened to Richard II when he argued for ‘absolute authority’), well….

      But he is already pitching for postmedieval; the article’s first paragraph ends with the statement that the key point is the end of the seventeenth century. To me, that is the point when the possibility first arose that, what with standing armies and a tax-base adequate to maintain them, the nascent alliance of war-gear and industry and so on, that a monarch might actually be able to defend an absolute authority. That’s why, isn’t it, that you start getting the philosopher-king ideas of people like Montaigne. I know that the medieval idea of royal authority is similarly untrammelled, except by God, but that is quite a big except and as you say, when people really try to act on it, you get Louis the Pious, Richard II, and of course Charles I. Frederick the Great or Louis XIV, however, much more difficult to oppose. Do you not think there’s a valid distinction there?

  3. The essay at Livius is either wrong or misses the point in a number of respects. For example, the matter of discredited ideas reappearing on the Net, here the author misses the point by asking only how these ideas have resurfaced (she blames Wikipedia) rather than asking *why* these ideas have resurfaced. She also should consider what she means by “public discourse” in this context. I would submit the only place from which they’d vanished was the college curriculum.

    Her statement about professional education not being a guarantee of freedom from error is just painfully obvious. The issue here isn’t that professors make mistakes (regardless of their level of specialization and what the devil does that word mean anyway), it’s that society views experts as being error-free and then curses those experts when they make mistakes. This is hardly peculiar to academia.

    This statement irks as well: “The field has become too wide to understand in its entirety.”

    Pardon? A “field” is hardly more than a polite convention and a convenience in hiring, at least in history. Historians have their research specialties. They are regularly asked to teach outside those specialties and we have a curriculum that assumes the right way to teach history is to proceed from the general to the particular (an approach I’ve long said was backward). All this person is saying is that an expert sometimes has to rely on other experts and that we cannot check every statement in every book we read.

    I’d be less grumpy about all this if the author had proposed solutions rather than merely caviled about problems.


    • I’m sympathetic to the criticism, but the blog is Dutch, which ought to relativise your comments about what ‘we’ have to do. I don’t know the Dutch system, but in Germany historians very much proceed from the particular to the general. You only get to teach introductory lectures after you’ve published at least two books, preferably on separate specialisations. More junior staff are only allowed to lead seminars in their own research areas.

      And the blogger, Jona Lendering, is a man, not a woman.

    • I think you’re asking for a bit much from what looks basically like an op-ed piece intended to stir some dust, but some of your criticism are fair enough. However, the thing that the author does put their finger on, briefly, is the fact that knowledge does not propagate in the way that we’d like from expert to consumer, but from inexpert savant to consumer. I don’t know that that’s sophisticated enough: there’s an important middle layer too. For example, a post here a while back in which I criitiqued some journalism and suggested that it read to me like someone misremembering their undergraduate notes (or reading them back but not having understood the source at the time). But it read like well-informed writing and not many readers would have had reason to suppose it couldn’t be accepted. There’s the problem: it’s that people are remembering from old courses, outdated textbooks (I will be cross if I get any more students telling me that Ralph Davis’s Short History of the Middle Ages says my lecture’s wrong) and so forth and then they’re getting to positions where they reach a far wider audience, via Wikipedia or TV or what have you, than our work does, in part (and this was the point that struck me most) because our publishers hide that work. Now I don’t think this article says that, and I’d like to see someone work more on this (for example by tracking Wikipedia articles’ cited references) but it is right to point at the disjuncture and say it is a problem. It’s not just idiots who won’t drop crazy ideas; it’s that people got taught this stuff once and we don’t get the new word out fast enough.

  4. “Frederick the Great or Louis XIV, however, much more difficult to oppose. Do you not think there’s a valid distinction there?”

    No. Both succeeded for a time by wrecking and wasting. They both left something of an institutional legacy but in many respects those legacies were disfunctional — like the four different kinds of registrars of baptisms that Louis created so that he could sell those offices to finance his wars.

    • This is an argument we should have in person at Kalamazoo or similar, I think! It needs beer. Your basis for comparison is of course much better informed than mine, but I would at least say that that kind of uniformity and redundant bureaucratic apparatus is itself a marker of difference between the eras; Charlemagne couldn’t have enlisted or kept track of that many people, I think. Louis could actually change what was taught in schools; not so my guys. Frederick I’s army could overwhelm any subject rebellion; the Old English fyrd would have had to be raised from the population first. Of course medieval kings were capable of decisive and brutal action, but I think the frames of possibility are different all the same, and that that ought to have led to different theories of justification.

  5. Yes, I look forward to that Kalamazoo beer! It will add to any discussion.

  6. Muchas gracias por su interés señor Jonathan Jarrett.
    La defensa de Carondio es una buena causa.

    Un cordial saludo.

  7. Picking up the point about Goldstone’s radicalism and novelty on the nature of modernity, I love the crack about steampunk. But yeah, the technology + elite entrepreneurship argument has been a commonplace at least since Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus (1965/9). The Landes thesis was interesting to contest in grad school, and now it’s wicked pleasant to see it pop back up as the jeepers cutting edge because I am soooooo ahead of the game.

    • Well, one column does not a cutting edge make, but, all right, how would you contest it now? Unless you need to retain this key information for the intellectual bunker come the Data Apocalypse?

      Quality icon, by the way. The kobble rocks just never did the job so well.

    • I gather Goldstone’s a Serious Person, but you’re right that he alone does not define a field. And I’m not a Serious Person, I just teach introductory World History to golf majors. So for what it’s worth my sense is that the whole ‘transition to modernity’ question has gotten pretty fractalized by postcolonialists contesting the eurocentricity of the core modernity concept, other cultural studies types dropping heavy ‘social construction’ ordinance of various kinds, against the steady hum of postmodernists doing their usual ironizing. It all comes down to power.

      Meanwhile Asianists want to show that for any variable you want to foreground it was there in China way earlier, Atlantic World types think the critical engine was in the Europe/Africa/Americas triangle including the rupture of European labor relations enabled by the New World and the primitive accumulation of slavery, and Annalistes still think you have to look at climate.

      Come the Data Apocalypse I plan to be a roving mutant who is easily dispatched by our plucky heroine as she fights her way to the lone surviving Data Core and uploads the Big Fix from the flash drive that survived the fiery crash of the last space shuttle.

      • <applauds>

        Though, I have to admit that I am willing to put quite a lot in my period down to climate, and indeed have logged in here today to write a post about that. All the same, long live the United Mutations!

  8. Pingback: More bullets of the new job, and, Jonathan Jarrett is going to Hell « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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