XKCD strip 386
That really should have been a subject header of mine a long time ago (not least given its pedigree). I suspect it will recur now. This is another post where I try and clear backlog by combining things that I’d decided to blog about separately, and in this instance the linking theme is things I read on the Internet that made me angry. (This happens a lot, as you’ve probably spotted).
DIgital Archaeology my Archive
The first one was this, which is a particularly annoying piece of wheel reinvention and may not be something you want on a work monitor, not least because it’s on Fox News but also because they have for reasons of pure prurience decided to illustrate the piece with a lingerie website. The schtick is simple enough, an advertising executive who’s done a certain amount of digging around to rebuild some old websites and had, when this was reported, now organised an event in London where he showed off the results. He is calling this digital archaeology (and the latter word presumably brought it to the notice of David Beard at Archaeology in Europe, where I first saw the link; hat duly tipped), and it’s not uninteresting, especially the note that mostly, websites can’t be entirely recovered no matter how good the cache is, the supporting images and so on are just gone. The bit where my temperature started to rise, though, was this:
Boulton isn’t the first to preserve the world of computers for future generations. The Software Preservation Group has been working since 2003 to catalog and archive software the world’s software resources. It’s an offshoot of California’s Computer History Museum, which archives the output of Silicon Valley. But these groups don’t preserve the Internet’s content itself, and certainly don’t consider themselves archaeology projects.
The name is not the problem. The problem is that people have been doing this for years, and I don’t mean Google. I am perpetually shocked when people don’t know about the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. More and more people are becoming aware of the former as they try and manœuvre themselves into a position of being a publically-funded runner-up to Google Books, which as has been mentioned here before is something some wise people think we need, but the foundation behind this all is much more than PDF repository (or even a storage site for gigabytes and gigabytes of Grateful Dead spin-offs’ live recordings). They have been trying to archive a copy of the whole damn Internet since 1996, and the job has, you know, got harder since then. Can you remember the URL of your old personal webpages at university, your first faculty Internet resource, that silly joke site where you’d already seen the stuff that someone e-mailed round your list of friends? It’s probably still there, have a look. It won’t be all there, and you do have to have the URL—no free text search—but nonetheless, a shocking amount has been preserved there, they’re working with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and they deserve not just our support, but also for enough people to know about them that this jumped-up executive can’t convince even a service as dull as Fox that he’s doing something new.
And, breathe. Next patient, the Daily Telegraph.
I know it’s the Telegraph but this is still rather stupid
On 25th November, apparently, the UK Education Secretary, got a petition from an outfit of school history teachers called The Better History Group demanding a reform of the way the subject is taught in UK schools. Now, I am no fan of bad history as you know, so I am not against this. Sadly my and the Telegraph‘s definitions of quality differ rather. Take this:
It was suggested that at the age of 11, pupils should learn about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, early medieval England and the Crusades.
At 12, pupils should be taught about medieval life, the English conquest of Scotland and Wales, the 100 Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Elizabeth I and overseas exploration.
Because of course the Middle Ages is entry-level stuff and not at all challenging or difficult, and chronology rules us all anyway, right? Why not the other way round, from the stuff they can do with help from family to the stuff they really really can’t? Also, hullo, anything from east of the German border at all apart from colonialism? I assume that the end result is in any case the same and that by the time they’re eighteen they’re studying the Third Reich same as most history students now. Pah. And this:
“The current nature of source-based assessment in examinations, both at GCSE and at A-level, bears little relation to actual historical practice or even to actual historical sources.
“Consequently, not only are students drilled in formulaic exercises of little practical application, but an enormous amount of time is wasted preparing them for these exercises, time which could have been better spent in extending their historical knowledge.
“Since analysis of source material is, in any case, meaningless without extensive knowledge, the lack of this renders current practice in source analysis a largely pointless exercise.”
You, the reader, will be familiar with the fact that one of the few things we can all agree on, from Guy Halsall to Stanley Fish, is that history teaches critical thinking,1 and the core of that, surely, is analysis of source material. What is suggested here is, more or less, to junk that in favour of a good patriotic singalong. I think, alas, that will play well with this government, given their flirtation with Niall Ferguson’s ‘bring back the empire in our school’ rhetoric of earlier this year. But if it actually said this, I would tear up this text—’a report’, says the Telegraph, abdicating any source analysis in the proper spirit of its informants and putting the whole thing under the headline “Children ‘ignorant of British history’ because of trendy teaching”, just to get the bigots’ heart-rate up—and jump on it, lots, because it would not only make inbred colonialism the stuff of modern education but it would also make the upcoming school population and next generation of voters even more stultifyingly unable to tell when someone is bullshitting them. And that, I begin to fear, seems to be what the powers-that-be actually want, because I’ve no idea what else they can be trying to achieve like this.
And this would probably be the point at which the British political class realised they could ignore popular protests now
That said, the actual report is much less bad than what the Telegraph—and this is of course not the first time thinking people have had to have this conversation—have made out that it says. I can’t find any of the quotes here in its text, and they do emphasise critical thinking taught by exposure to source material, a single joined-up history course but without the ‘little Empire’ focus (or indeed any recommended content) the Telegraph have added. So I don’t mean to condemn the Better History Group at all, their approach and thinking seems more or less admirable to me from their actual report. But that actual report is most definitely not what the Telegraph are quoting, and they don’t tell us what it is that they are. Of course, to spot that they’re making stuff up to cause their readers to froth, rather than doing actual journalism, you’d have to have some kind of critical awareness and a readiness to check sources. So perhaps it’s not just the government who could use a more credulous and unthinking population, hey? Man, I hate it all.
Oh, no, hang on, Stanley Fish doesn’t think that, sorry. He thinks he ought to be paid by the public for doing something he is willing to say is useless and doesn’t help them at all. It’s enough to make you wonder exactly how
the public purse is funding the guy.