Where.Our landmarks

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Our landmarks


"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she / With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"[1]

To get around A Place to Study well, imagine an actual place, one that's large and complex, like the city we love, one with a populace dedicated to the free growth of mind. We live, we think and act, in a world comprising actualities, near and far. We can recognize the digital commons as an emerging virtual actuality within the world in which we live, understanding virtual in its root Latin meaning, "with functional excellence or power." People catch on to programs in the virtual world, their world of functional excellence or power, when they see something mimic usefully the way things work in their physical world.

For instance, Facebook tied itself to a pretty superficial, real-world analog, "a directory containing photographs and biographical details of students (esp. incoming freshman) at a university or college, published at the start of the academic year to facilitate contact between students" (OED). The concept of a facebook immediately suggests to people how they should use the program, connecting names with faces and building little networks of mutual interest and admiration. It has worked; people immediately see a use for it in their lifeworld, but the superficiality of that use has imposed limitations on Facebook that have become increasingly dysfunctional for both persons and the public as the program commands more and more attention.

For Wikipedia, the real-world analog has worked in culturally more constructive ways. Most people basically know on first encounter how to work with Wikipedia, for we have sufficient prior experience with encyclopedias and other alphabetical materials to know what we need to do to search for the information we seek. With Wikipedia, we are like foals who seem to know almost at birth how to stand up and walk. This immediate transparency in how to use it undoubtedly contributed to the rapidity and reach with which Wikipedia caught on.

With A Place to Study, the real-world analog is less intuitive and more complex. At first, visitors to A Place to Study will think that it is another instance of an encyclopedic type program, after all, it runs on MediaWiki, the public domain program designed and developed for Wikipedia and its sister projects. And indeed, at times searching by keyword on A Place to Study will work, for visitors can access much on it in that way. But A Place to Study does not serve primarily as a means of retrieving information about a range of named topics. With A Place to Study we need to ask consciously, what serves as a real-world analog to it, to a place where persons can work with cultural resources in extended, open-ended efforts to advance their self-formation and liberal learning?

We might liken it to a university, which is similar in the scope of cultural resources and the depth with which people engage with them. But A Place to Study does not have the functional features characterizing universities — no formal programs leading to degrees, no admissions requirements, neither "the faculty" nor "the student body." The websites of colleges and universities all look and work more or less alike and they do not look and work at all like A Place to Study. What then?

We can leave that question open, as we do with many questions here. However, we loosely take the city, urban life, as the analog to the material world that helps organize A Place to Study. An old medieval phrase — "Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag," city air makes one free after a year and a day" — suggests two things about A Place to Study. First that a prolonged engagement our urban way of study may have something to do with our actualizing our autonomy,[2] and second, that it won't happen overnight. Let's now step out of the past towards the future: globalization spreads Stadtluft, city air, everywhere as cities 'round the world look and work alike and as digital communications ensnare everyone, everywhere, in reliance on urban resources to conduct themselves in an urban style of life.

  1. Concluding lines from "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.
  2. The medieval phrase referred to customary law, according to which a serf from the countryside who managed to live for a year and a day as a free person in a free city, one independent of the prevailing feudal regimes, would be considered free of any prior obligations as a serf. Let's hypothesize that behind the legal formality there was a formative aspect: the lord of the manor knew that recovering a serf who had grown accustomed to autonomous life in the city would no longer be suitably servile and more trouble than his labor would be worth.