Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

The Seductive Appeal of ‘Education’

In reviewing Jill Lepore‘s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion’s of Jane Franklin, a ‘biography’ of Benjamin Franklin‘s considerably less distinguished sibling, Susan Dunn writes:

The words “seduction” and “education” in fact share the same Latin root: ducere, to lead. Seduction leads astray (“se-”), while education leads out (“e”)—out of our unformed, primitive selves. Education civilizes us, prepares us for participation in society, in culture, in public service. Education opens the gates of the world. It provides the exit, the one way out. (‘The Other Franklin,’ The New York Review of Books, 24 October 2013)

Like just about any etymology lessons, this one is fascinating. Many–like me–might have noticed the orthographic similarity between ‘seduction’ and ‘education’ without pausing to inquire whether they might share in provenance.

For my present purposes, though, I am less interested in exploring this etymological connection than in inquiring further into the seductive appeal of education itself, one that Dunn elaborates as the primary reason for the wildly dissimilar achievements and lives of the Franklin siblings. At one pole is the phenomenally well-read Benjamin, at the other, the barely literate Jane. (Dunn helpfully provides several samples of her less than inspiring prose.) One sibling travels far and wide, literally and figuratively, acquiring a cosmopolitanism that would be the envy of many and ensuring a place for himself in any history of the times he lived in; the other remains stagnant in a provincial existence, destined for obscurity unless rescued by the attentions of a sympathetic writers committed to the construction of alternative histories. With such wildly disparate fates in store, who would not be convinced of the civilizing and prosperity-inducting effects of education? (Education appears correlated with longer lives too, as public health data seems to confirm.) If a flourishing life is our aim, then education seems the golden road to it.

This optimism though, seems destined to be tempered by the familiar skepticism about whether education–even if of the ‘right’, ‘classical’ variety–can form our ‘unformed’, ‘primitive’ selves in all the right ways, whether education, even as it ‘civilizes’ us, does a good enough job of driving out the uncivilized within us. for instance, here is George Steiner in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

This skepticism suggests we have conceived of ‘education’ a little too narrowly. Perhaps we have only included bookish and cultural indoctrination of various stripes under that rubric. In the process, we might have excluded the more nebulous ‘moral education’, a process the determination of whose contours still remains oppressively intractable.