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