Monday, June 20, 2011

A few links on HPS, publicness, public knowledge, etc., etc.:

A charming rant by Dominic Berry on "HPS on't telly":
It looks as though TV is just catching up with what David Phillip Miller has called the ‘Sobel effect’, the seemingly endless growth in popular science and science history writing triggered by Dava Sobel in the 1990s. In the particular case of the programme which sparked this blog post this is literally so, for John Emsley, one of the more prolific contributors to this popular history of science movement, was a key consultant on Jim Al-Khalili’s Chemistry: A Volatile History which is currently being repeated. Much of this programming is bad, just bad. And most irritatingly, history of science seems to be something anyone thinks they can just pick up and spout off about. One of the most recent and partiuclarly aggravating examples of this was Niall Fergusson’s use of Newton and Boyle as the prime example of how the Royal Society thrived due to collective enterprise. Fuck sake.

More recently and perhaps more reflectively, Rebekah Higgitt on history of science spoiling everybody's party (with great links and comments):
As regular readers will know, one of my abiding interests is the relationship between academic history of science and popular history of science or, more specifically, how to make historiographically-informed books into readable texts. It’s an issue that has been around for some time, prompting comments by David Miller on the ‘Sobel Effect’ back in 2002 (when he told “The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World”). This wasn’t just sour grapes, but an analysis of the effect on the publishing marking and an important discussion of how more recent trends in historiography tend to complicate narratives and question accounts of discovery as a heroic process.

James Sumner has a satisfying rant about "first-talk" — the first computer, the first refrigerator, the first whatever — in the history of technology, and how it is always absolute garbage.
I’m paid a lot of money not to write like that, but he’s saying what I’m thinking. First-talk, far too often, reduces to an annoying game which gets out of the historical record pretty much what it decides to put in. It’s a distraction. Real technical change is gradual, and rich in independent overlapping discoveries. That’s not a fussy academic quibble: it’s a point small children can grasp.

And only semirelatedly, Iain Pears offers the most thoughtful assessment of A. C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities that I've yet seen. (It's also one of the few that takes the time to debunk the idea that NCH is an "American-style university": "Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr do not, I think, download curricula from the internet to teach their students.") The golden insight comes at the end:
Professor Grayling is acting because he considers the battle within the national university system to be lost. But in some ways it has only just started, after long delays.

It was the duty of his generation to fight that battle, but it did not. Had serious opposition been mounted 10 or 20 years back then there might have been some chance of success. But his generation was extraordinarily supine.

Collectively, they let it happen, and contented themselves with gaming the system. That worked, and some gained as much celebrity as academics can get in a culture which cares little for scholarship. But these are not the people who should now be delivering lectures about saving the humanities: they had their chance, and they blew it. A little more activity when they were in their prime and the humanities might not have needed saving; a little more humility now and the reception given to their proposal could have been radically more favourable.

Now we're really straying from the original topic, but I really enjoyed Alex Golub's debunking of the idea that creativity is the same thing as spontaneity.
Of course, overall I agree with Robinson’s point: as someone with a long history of performance in drama and music I am often shocked at the cultural barrenness of my students. We have created a system that teaches them that music comes out of machines, not them, and most serious dance they see on television has more in common with a strip tease than Alvin Ailey. Arts education, like physical education, or the craftwork that goes into creating visual art, is desperately needed in our schools’ curriculum at both the secondary and tertiary level. It’s an important part of learning to be human.

But what that education is — what enables creativity — is often quite different from what people imagine. It requires more training and discipline, not less. In other words: being socialized into a culture of practice. This is a lesson that any athropologist — or any artist — should remind us as we think about education in this country today.

And a reminder to myself: never, ever read the comments at Inside Higher Ed. They are like YouTube comments, only about things that matter.

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