Month: April 2013

Video Game Museums Abound, and Falter

The BBC’s coverage of the Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines has been attracting considerable attention recently.

The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines
The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines

The Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines joins a number of other video game museums (most of which seem to be struggling to survive), including:

These museums often adopt grand rhetoric about education and enjoyment. “A key goal of the IAM is to establish a definitive collection of mechanical amusement devices, coin-operated machines and videogames for the enjoyment and education of society as a whole.” The American Classic Arcade Museum promises to keep alive the history of coin-operated arcade games “through educational displays, cut-away models of games, vintage publications, antique catalogs and guest lectures given by prominent figures in arcade history.” These arcade and video game museums are clearly trying to pull the lowly video game with its “for amusement only” joystick out of the rubbish pile of societal detritus and to elevate the level of important cultural artifact.

They all seem, however, to depend on nostalgia. As the Museum *of Soviet* Arcade Machines puts it: “There are moments when you want to come back in the childhood for a short while, because there were so many interesting things that we remember cordially till now.” Perhaps these museums are struggling because nostalgia simply isn’t a powerful enough reason.

STS in the Liberal Arts and Beyond

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I taking part in a workshop at Vassar College, “Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the Liberal Arts,” on the role, if any, of STS in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum.1

The program is shaping up nicely. Topics include:

  • Branching Out: STS and Other Multidisciplinary Fields
  • Partnerships and Tensions: Exploring Relations between STS and the Sciences
  • Pedagogical Enhancements: New Teaching Methods for STS
  • So, What’s New?: Incorporating the Cutting-edge into Our Teaching and Scholarship
  • Beyond the Blackboard: Educational Technologies in the STS Classroom
  • Outside the Classroom: Non-Curricular Involvement of STS in College Life
  • Off-Campus Opportunities: Connecting to Businesses, Agencies, NGOs
  • Faced with Intellectual Diversity: Tailoring STS Content to Students’ Interests
  • Diverse Students: Globalism and Multiculturalism in the STS Classroom

I am particularly interested in “Partnerships and Tensions” and “Off-Campus Opportunities.”

I am hopeful that we will also be able to talk about what we think holds the STS curriculum together or gives it some coherence. In a comment on my previous post, Joe Martin suggested:

… what are the core competencies of an STS graduate? How do they differ from those of other liberal arts/interdisciplinary majors? How can STS strive to confer the type of disciplinary competence that traditional liberal arts majors offer? Given the diverse and fuzzy-bordered nature of STS as a field, I suspect that answers to questions like these will be highly local and it might be worthwhile to expose and map those differences.

I think these are important questions, complicated by the fact that at many liberal arts institutions STS is not a degree or minor program. STS course work is interleaved into the students’ regular major. Here at Haverford, history majors can select “History of Science” as one of their areas of concentration. Despite some promising efforts a few years back, an STS minor never gained any real traction. Other minors and concentrations often want a history of science or STS component—e.g., Health and Society or Environmental Studies—but again, STS is subordinated to the real focus of the program.

Perhaps that makes Joe’s questions all the more important. What is it that STS brings to the table that other disciplines and majors don’t? What sort of identity—disciplinary or curricular or ideological or pedagogical—does STS have?

If you have suggestions or thoughts, please email them to me or, better yet, write a post at your blog and link back so I am alerted to your post.

1 I am not distinguishing between STS and History of Science. There are many heated debates about the nature of these two things and their proper goals and objects of study and their political agendas. I am not engaging with those debates here.

Mythology of Doctrines

The mythology takes several forms. First there is the danger of converting some scattered or incidental remarks by a classic theorist into their ‘doctrine’ on one of the expected themes. This in turn has the effect of generating two particular kinds of historical absurdity. One is more characteristic of intellectual biographies and synoptic histories of thought, in which the focus is on the individual thinkers (or the procession of them). The other is more characteristic of ‘histories of ideas’ in which the focus is on the development of some ‘unit idea’ itself.

Such exercises may seem merely quaint, but they could always have a more sinister undertone, as these examples may perhaps suggest: a means to fix one’s own prejudices onto the most charismatic names under the guise of innocuous historical speculation.

Quentin Skinner on various forms of the “Mythology of Doctrines” in his “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969): 3–53.

Beckwith: Modernism has Killed Science

Today, in European cultures, and in other cultures that have borrowed it, science per se is strictly peripheral at best. It is not only inseparable from technology; it is all but completely divorced from philosophy. This is a far cry from the Middle Ages. The centrality of science in all spheres of Western European culture was ensured when the crucial elements — all of them — were borrowed during the Crusades, more or less simultaneously, from Classical Arabic civilization. There, science had never become integrated into Islamic culture, but was considered “foreign” to Islam, and so fell to the onslaught of anti-intellectualism that swept the Islamic world at its peak in the Middle Ages. By contrast, Western Europeans were enthralled by science from the 13th century down to the 20th, when Humanism — now redefined specifically as a collection of ‘non-scientific fields’ — replaced science as the default mode of higher education. Science has come under attack not only by fundamentalists, but even by philosophers and other scholars, who seem not to understand science. What happened?

To learn what happened, go read How Western Europe Developed the Scientific Method,” where Christopher Beckwith surveys his new thesis, which promises to attract controversy.