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December 08, 2003
The virtual academy

Last Friday, Patrick Crozier sent in to and had published on Samizdata a piece about what caused the outbreak of the First World War. (He blamed the Kaiser.) WHen I last looked there had been 55 comments.

This posting, together with the comments it provoked, gives me a chance to return to a favourite theme on this blog, which is the educational power and impact of the internet, and of blogging in particular.

In my opinion this posting, and the debate and discussion it sparked off, illustrates the educational power of the blogosphere at something like maximum strength.

Education is a complicated thing, but one of the many things it surely means is the opportunity to participate in a community united by shared intellectual interests, and to talk around subjects before plunging head first into all the details, and all the reading one might do. (A number of further reading suggestions were offered by various commenters, including one from me, in the one comment I contributed to the discussion.)

There is probably no completely satisfactory substitute for face to face contact to get this kind of intellectual stimulus and guidance, but this kind of virtual discussion is probably the next best thing. Several of the commenters on this thread made this point themselves, but added that actually getting a face-to-face discussion of this quality would be very hard indeed. So for many, it would be this kind of virtual discussion, or nothing.

Equally, if you don't want to get stuck into too much detail, but merely want an overview of a topic like this one, then such a discussion would probably give a more complete picture of the topic, and of how various different intellectual camps argue about it, than any one screed of comparable length by just one scholar, however distinguished.

None of which means that it's an either/or thing. There's nothing to stop a university student reading through this post and all the comments, and feeding what he or she learns into the other face-to-face discussions and learning that they are also doing.

Speaking for myself, I believe that I'm learning an enormous amount from having joined the community of bloggers.

And especially from Samizdata. I really don't know quite how Samizdata does it, but Samizdata comments at their best can be remarkably informative and interesting. At their worst, comments on Samizdata are the usual crass rubbish you get everywhere, but at their best, they can be exceptionally good. The occasional interventions of the presiding editorial geniuses, Perry de Havilland and Adriana Cronin, help. These can often be quite assertive, but that, I think, serves to keep everyone on their toes, and to frighten sillier commenters into silence, while putting the best ones on notice that only their best will truly impress. It also helps that the most relentlessly silly commenters have the plug pulled on them. Maybe that's some of why Samizdata sometimes works so very well. But in truth, I no more know how you create a great group blog, with a great commentariat, than how you set about creating a great university.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: BloggingThe Internet

The comment that did it for me was the one from the academic who regretted that he could never get anything like as high a quality discussion from his students. Very flattering.

I think Samizdata has two great strengths: size and the fact it is a group blog. The two are related. Being a group blog means that there's almost always something new. That brings readers. Readers bring comments and encourage people to become posters. It also means that posters can if they are having writer's block take time off - very good for recharging the batteries every now and then.

If I had the time I would set up a First World War Blog like a shot - I'd have stacks of writers. Why not BEdBlog as a group blog?

Comment by: Patrick Crozier on December 9, 2003 03:52 AM

No; please. I am hooked on Straight Brian and prefer not to have additives.

It's not that a group blog on education wouldn't work- it's just that this blog has already established it's own 'character' and speaking from my own selfish perspective, I'd not like to see it changed.

Comment by: Scott Wickstein on December 9, 2003 02:35 PM

Why not this a group blog?

Because I'm not up to running a group blog. I toyed with the idea of making this a group effort, but soon realised that there is grief and complication such as I do not need in bossing a group blog, like: the danger of signing up boring and unsuitable idiots who don't get what I'm trying to do, and then not knowing how to get rid of them.

Also, I actually like having a place where I can vent on educational issues without drawing too much attention to my many blunders and confusions, what a legion is, what the hell the government's education policies are, etc.. As I get cleverer at writing about it all, maybe then the numbers will build. Maybe. I don't actually count them myself.

I believe strongly in group blogs which are ideologically inclined in directions I like, but my way of helping that trend along is to write for three such blogs run (very well) by others: Samizdata, Transport Blog (Patrick's - see above), Ubersportingpundit (Scott's - also see above), rather than to arrive at my level of incompetence by trying to run such a blog myself.

Also, I have done my stint as a libertarian facilitator of other people's writings, doing pamphlets for the Libertarian Alliance, and I just want to settle back and write my own stuff. It's easier. My next step is not to get back into editing, but to get forward into teaching. Which I keep meaning to do, once I've sorted out my blog-life.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on December 9, 2003 03:19 PM

... plus, if I do need to liven things up by having other views besides my own, it seems to me to be working very well to bring in guest writers like Yehudi Menuhin and Winston Churchill. These are easy people to deal with, not least because they're dead. I intend many more such slices from books by all manner of persons and personages.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on December 9, 2003 03:22 PM

It's a bit wide in remit to be described as an education blog, but Rational Parenting is a newly-revived group blog where education has a high priority...

Comment by: emma on December 9, 2003 05:30 PM

The blogosphere indeed provides a vehicle for intellectual discussion, which is usually missing from the mainstream media (too shallow and trendy) and from academia (too narrow and conformist).

But why group (as opposed to individual) blogs? In print media, this kind of "batching" is forced by production and distribution issues. But on the web, it is trivial to move between blogs...so what is gained by putting several authors together?

Comment by: David Foster on December 10, 2003 12:18 AM


You of course make a good point, but nevertheless there does seem to be something a bit special about the best group blogs, and especially when it comes to comments, i.e. when assembling a really big group. Many individual blogs manage this, but as Patrick says, the group blogs can churn out far more stuff, and that simply attracts more people. Interesting discussions reach "critical mass" much more quickly in such circumstances. It's like the difference between a sociable person's front room, and a really good pub.

In other words, I think your final question is one worth treating seriously as a question, rather than just noting as a rhetorical statement.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on December 10, 2003 12:29 AM

The big advantage of a group blog is that when one undergoes a blogger drought, other people are around posting. The site gets updated more often than one person could manage, and people therefore bother visiting regularly. Also, those not updating are probably interested enough in what the other contributors are saying to seed discussion.

Comment by: emma on December 11, 2003 04:08 PM

I absolutely agree with you about the excellence of the samizdata commentariat. I can honestly say that the comments when you quoted me there recently made me rethink whether "Nazism even worse than Communism" is just a leftover reflex from my left wing upbringing, or a seriously justifiable position. I *think* I would still argue for it, but I certainly would never take it for granted again.

Not wanting to reopen that discussion here, but rather to cite it as an example of somebody (me) having their deeply held opinions/prejudices effectively challenged by those bright and articulate people.

Comment by: Alan Little on December 19, 2003 06:07 PM

I also like the term "commentariat". Did you coin it? Ah, apparently not according to this http://www.quinion.com/words/turnsofphrase/tp-com3.htm

Comment by: Alan Little on December 19, 2003 06:10 PM
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