Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Who, or What, is an Authority?

Several weeks ago I arrived early for an appointment with a school principal at a local elementary school. I was shown to the school library to wait and as I pondered the meeting my eyes fell on the books on the book shelf closest to me.  It was labeled the 'Geography' section and I was soon reading the titles on the book spines and stopped, quite naturally, at one titled 'England'. As I flipped through the book I saw pictures of large cargo ships hauling British products to all four corners of the Earth; pictures of coal mines turning out vast quantities of coal and men dressed in collars and ties, with caps, working in the fields. There were also pictures of busy High Streets with mainly British-made cars and bustling people on the sidewalks. Curious, I looked inside the front cover to see the publication date; it was 1968. Returning the book to the shelf I noticed other books in the same series labeled, for example,  Sweden, France, Germany, and Spain.

In the courses I teach I advise students about using Wikis and other socially constructed forms of media for their research. I often provide them with good and not so good examples of on-line "authorities" they should, or maybe should not, use when conducting research or writing papers. It is important, I think, to help students become connoisseurs of the resources they use so that they can be appropriately informed. I always suggest they know who or which organization is responsible for what they are reading and the process it has gone through to be published on the web.

For many, the internet has replaced books, and people, as sources of authority in the sense of the truths, facts or ideas upon which our culture relies. It's even difficult sometimes being a professor when internet resources are viewed with such unquestionning belief.

So what of the geography books in the elementary school library to which children have access when, perhaps, they are completing a project on a European country? My suggestion would be to simply move them into the 'History' section and advise students to use the internet to find out what life is really like in England, France, Sweden or Germany.

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