Sunday, December 15, 2019

On reading old academic books. . . . .

In some academic areas, knowledge changes fast enough that a textbook or monograph can become obsolete in only a few years.  Can one trust, say, a 10-year-old chemistry or physics text?  If it is for a freshman class, perhaps.  For senior majors?  Maybe mostly, but perhaps even by then such students, and perhaps graduate students even more so, need something that reflects new knowledge or discovery.  Maybe historians read them, but in the context of history, not the book's subject itself.

What about, say, books for English majors, such as ones of or about Shakespeare plays, or Victorian poets?  And what about a subject like anthropology?  Do these books really become obsolete?  What would that even mean in such cases?

I have been re-reading one of the books I used as a graduate student, in the 1970s, written by a professor of mine, an ethnologist named Leslie White.  He was a leader in the cultural anthropology of his mid-20th century time.  But does anybody read his book today, except perhaps as an historian of anthropology itself?  I rather doubt it.  But why?

For some sciences, old books, even old text books, may no longer be trustworthy.  I have no idea how much, say, physics, chemistry or even biology undergraduate texts really need revision as often as they get it. But I do dare to assert that much of the publishing that takes place is about careerism and supplementary income for professors and profiteering by publishers.  It is part of the system that we have allowed to develop over at least the past century.

How truly obsolete are older books in the social sciences or other similar fields?  In this instance, White's The Science of Culture was published in 1949!  It was already about 20 years old when I was a graduate student in his class.  Inspiring as it was then and still seems upon re-reading, I wonder whether anthropology has made sufficient discoveries, if that is even a relevant term for such a field, to obsolesce his book and force students to read (that is, to buy) new books? 

Of course, there will be new data here and there, some new ideas about how things are, and perhaps a survey course of (in this case) cultural anthropology should include populations studied more recently, and (perhaps) new 'theories' of culture.  Descriptions of current populations, like native Americans, may require new books, though they supplement but don't obsolesce older ones. One can question how much of the theorizing in fields like this is mainly careerism by faculty members needing to get tenure, promotion, and pay raises.  Is mentioning such mundane matters fair, or too cynical?  I think it is more than fair, indeed, central to what happens in academe, especially in 'softer' fields like cultural anthropology.  I think in many ways it is the name of the game today.

But I find White's book, to take this as but one example, to be relevant beyond just being a reflection of the history of ethnological thought.  The concepts discussed, too much to go into in this brief blog post, seem totally relevant and intellectually interesting today.  It is ideas about how things are, as viewed not just by us but by peoples living in very different cultures from ours.  It is not just a descriptive history nor list of what things were seen in this or that study.  It is not 'obsolete', even if I bet that it is not read by anyone except (perhaps) the odd historian here or there.

Maybe this is more about anthropologists (one might say the ethnography of anthropology) than anthropology as a subject, and maybe that view is far more widely applicable a way of understanding than most professors in the game would like to admit....

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