Primary and Secondary Sources

Today’s perambulation through the blogosphere brings this morsel to the plate:

Students in history classes at Middlebury College this spring may have to change the way they do research for papers or tests. Although they can consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for background, they are not allowed to cite it as a source……Just this month a dark cloud fell over Wikipedia’s credibility after it was revealed that a trusted contributor who claimed to be a tenured professor of religion was actually a 24-year-old college dropout. He was also one of the appointed “arbiters” who settled disputes between contributors.

I find that decision very interesting, for several reasons.

First, it has been made very clear to me by my professors at this fine college that Wikipedia is not a valid source for references. What took the esteemed faculty at Middlebury so long to arrive at the same decision?

Second, on the first day of my history class, Dr. P……. explained to us, in great detail, the meaning of primary sources and secondary sources. He made it very clear that, as a trained historian teaching us to think like historians, he would not accept references, in any paper or test, that used the internet as a secondary source. My notes indicate that he used the word “dilettante” to describe those who, among others, seek to furnish knowledge to the great universe of students via the World-Wide Web. In checking Merriam’s online dictionary (not Wikipedia!), it is obvious that Dr. P……. was using the secondary meaning of the word, to wit, “a person having a superficial interest in an art of a branch of knowledge”. Synonyms listed included “dabbler” and “amateur”.

Looks like Dr. P……. was exactly right. The power of a trained mind exerting discipline and training to establish, in context, the validity of his thesis.

Can I have some of that?


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“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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