Learning, research, and received wisdom

As I’m now deep in the depths of the final revisions of the resubmission of my thesis (long story), I’ve found myself re-reading books and journal articles that I first read years ago, and as a result, I’ve also found myself thinking a great deal about how learning and research works, and in particular, how ideas get recycled across years and years without any real critical consideration.

There are a whole bunch of circumstances in academia today that, at least from where I’m standing, seem to be limiting innovation.  An academic job market that has never really recovered from the recession puts pressure on graduate students and early career investigators to focus on ‘safe’ material – grad students get told we need our theses to generate great letters of support, and then need to be turned into books that will get great reviews.  If we score a tenure-track position, it seems like more and more the mentality is to keep your head down until you have tenure, whether that means being expected to live above your means or not making waves on campus.  Even for established researchers, the pressure of funding still puts the emphasis on continuing existing projects rather than branching out into something new because no one wants to fund failure.  All told, that means that for upwards of the first twenty to thirty years of your career, the pressure is to keep to familiar ground.

These circumstances are particularly problematic because, even without them, it seems like we humans tend to keep to familiar ground with our thinking anyway.  We like precedence, and seem to have the tendency to judge new information against what we already know about the subject.  In doing so, however, we’re essentially privileging whatever we heard first.

This plays out in education all the time.  Take, for example, a couple of weeks ago, when many children learned, as many of us did, that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  We learned that he was proving the world was round, not flat as everyone else thought, and that he had three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  And to prove how effective that early teaching is, I did all of that from memory.

However, only bits and pieces of that are true.  He did sail in 1492; he did have three ships, and he did sail an ocean of some color.  However, he wasn’t proving the world was round – according to contemporary records, he was arguing for the world as being significantly smaller than it had already been proven to be (by a mathematician in Alexandria using trigonometry), and according to his own sea journal, he thought the world was pear-shaped or the shape of a woman’s breast, with the ocean being the bulge (thus taking so long to transverse).  The children’s account also leaves out his many atrocities in the Americas.

The claim is that the children’s version has to be simplified and sanitized in order to make it appropriate for children.  However, the differences go well beyond simplification, to the point that many of us have the experience of learning the more complex and complete story as adults and feeling either lied to or strongly resistant to the latter version, as contradicting what we already know.  We take the children’s version as received wisdom – something from on high that comes to us complete and elegant – and resist the adult version, with all of its problems and problematic questions, as being less satisfying.

The apparent benefit of received wisdom is elegance.  Elegance is also a mathematical principle – in logic, the best proofs are elegant, in that they are succinct, rely on a minimum of assumptions, and contain no extraneous material.  It’s tempting to use the same model for all information, but the problem is that oftentimes, the thing we learned first wasn’t actually more elegant than the thing we learned second – especially if we learned it as children or when we were just starting out in a particular field, it was probably oversimplified, and we were too inexperienced to know how to ask the right questions or interrogate the information properly.

This comes up with Islamic studies because, as I’ve talked about before, my field has a history of source skepticism.  But it’s a selective source skepticism.  It has to be, because pure source skepticism is impossible – there are so few extant manuscripts dated to within the period they describe that we can authenticate that we would barely be able to describe the historical periods pre-publishing at all.  And in rereading so much material in one go, I’ve started to notice the pattern of what sources are privileged above others, and in many cases, they’re the ones we all learn first, pure and simple.

For example, I was reading a book recently that made an absolutely beautiful source skeptical argument about a particular Christian theological debate from the seventh century called the Monothelite debate, basically arguing that too many of the sources that historians have traditionally relied upon come from after the Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 680.  Monothelitism was one of the reasons that Council was called, and historians have used this to cast backwards a version of the controversy in which the theology was always full-formed and the sides clearly delineated.  This guy made a compelling case that we need to be more careful and look exclusively at the earlier sources to understand how the controversy started, and not just accept the Acts of the Council as the full story.

And then proceeded to defend his reading of what the controversy looked like in the early seventh century by citing Michael the Syrian, a 12th century source, extant in a single complete 16th century manuscript and four known partial manuscripts.

So if the concern is authenticity to a 7th century mindset, one that didn’t yet bear the strict “orthodox/heresy” perception of the church council, why use a 12th century source?  Well, to be honest, I don’t think the author was thinking about it like that.  I think the starting point was ‘it says this in Michael the Syrian, so how does that compare to other things?’  And I think the source of that mentality is that Michael the Syrian is, quite literally, how many historians of the Late Antique period learn what a chronicle is.  It’s one of the first things you translate if you’re learning Syriac; it’s one of the first things you read about in any given textbook or general study.  We don’t hold it to the same rules of source skepticism because it’s how we learn what a source is, so of course it must be a good one!

This isn’t a vote for Michael the Syrian as a good or bad source – on some level, it’s a demonstration of the essentially tautological nature of source skepticism.  We can’t apply the same skepticism to all sources because on some level, we need a model to use as a standard.

But it’s also a vote for innovation, and for a certain flexibility in how we do research, so that there are opportunities to go back and revisit even well-accepted sources, with enough time and space to approach these questions, even, or perhaps most importantly, for the beliefs and perspectives with which we’re the most comfortable.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Learning, research, and received wisdom

  1. Pingback: On flossing | askanislamicist

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