Wednesday, January 7, 2009

History 112: The Internet (My blog and Wikipedia versus Frances Yates)

Welcome to my class. Today we will be discussing the internet. I assume all of you use the internet. How is the internet valuable and where might it prove to be a problem; should you use the internet as a source? The fundamental problem with the internet is that there is no control.

Take for example this blog here; (I showed the class my blog) it is written by a very nice person, myself, and I decide what is written. For example if I so feel like it I can write: “the other night the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated Texas in the Fiesta Ball.” And lo and behold it is on the internet. Wikipedia is even worse. At least with my blog you know who the author is. With Wikipedia you have no idea who the author is. Most Wikipedia articles are open to anyone to edit. You want to see how easy it is to put in made up facts into Wikipedia? (I gave my students a demonstration in practical Wikipedia sabotage, changing random facts around.) Here is an article on Jewish Messiahs. The article lists Asher Kay as a Jewish messianic claimant, who lived in the early sixteenth century. The real person was named Asher Lemlein. Asher Kay is a friend of mine, who decided to take advantage of the fact that he shared a common first with Asher Lemlein to take his place in Wikipedia’s version of history.

Now take this book I have here, Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Giordano Bruno was a sixteenth century renegade Dominican, who believed that the true Christianity was hermeticism and Kabbalah. He managed to run around Europe, preaching this, for a number of decades until he ended up in the hands of the Inquisition, who burned him at the stake. Frances Yates was one of the great early modern historians of the twentieth century and this book, written during the 1960s, revolutionized the field. What is the difference between this book and Wikipedia? I am sure Francis Yates was a very nice woman, she even was a professor at the University of London. Last I checked, though, Yates did not talk to God; this book is not the Bible. She wrote with a very specific agenda and it comes out in how she interprets texts. If any of you ever have the good fortune to sit down and read this book I would hope that at times you will say: “I do not buy her into what she is saying here, she completely misinterprets this document.” Yates was not perfect; she made mistakes. So if both Yates and Wikipedia are both prone to human error why is one better than the other?

Yates did not make this book up off the top of her head. Yates had an editor. The copy of her book in our hands here was published by the University of Chicago Press, a prestigious publishing house. Before this book was published numerous other scholars in the field looked it over and it passed muster with them. Furthermore Yates gives sources. If you think she is mistaken go back and read her sources for yourself. The fact that this is a printed book is also helpful. What we have here is a set text that is not going to change. The words in this book are going to stay exactly the same until it falls apart from age or is destroyed. While this does not mean this book is error proof, this gives it a level of credibility that I am actually going to take what it says seriously.

What is Wikipedia good for? I actually use Wikipedia on a regular basis. When I read I often run into names and terms I am unfamiliar with. What do I do? I look them up online and usually end up in Wikipedia. I can quickly get basic facts, dates, country and important concepts. Then I write it down. Here is a stack of flashcards I have with me. I have huge stacks of these at home. Wikipedia is also useful in that the better Wikipedia articles have footnotes and sources. So while Wikipedia, in of itself, is not a good source it can lead you to legitimate sources. If you are researching a topic you know nothing about you can go to Wikipedia and in seconds you can have a working bibliography from which to start researching.

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