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"The only authentic filters or maps to the vastness of available information are the disciplines - not anything accessible to the fledgling undergraduate such as serendipity, the 'neutral' methods of librarianship, the imprimatur of authorities, or the handbooks of cults.

Undergraduate college is where students first learn the mastery of a discipline. For my purposes here, a 'discipline' includes interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs of study. Students lack this mastery before they get to college, possess it after college, deepen it in graduate school, but first acquire it as an undergraduate.

Disciplines are the only authoritative filters because they are based on knowledge, not authority. Peer review is the best we can do, despite its fallibility and subjectivity, because it is based as much as possible on disciplinary mastery. But since there are ideological divisions among disciplinary experts, peer review harbors the risk of suppressing heterodox and revolutionary new work. Disciplines are most likely to survive this risk in a free society with a wide and robust field of publications in which new work needn't appeal to the filters of the old regime.

It follows that work validated by peer review will be both ideologically divided and voluminous. Hence, we will need another filter before we decide what to read for our own research and what to recommend to students. Again, we must use our disciplinary mastery for this because we have nothing else that is not simply authoritarian. If we take our filter from another source, we are not navigating freely or reliably through the wilderness of information. We will be controlled by that authority.

Students adrift in a large library know they need help, but not because they fear they might run into interest-driven and methodologically-riven scholarship. But students adrift in a large data base will probably feel even less need for help. The small screen and game-like search commands prevent the sense of being lost; the aura of the computer deflects the fear of being duped. The risk of dupery is worrisome precisely for those students who don't worry about it.

My largest worry is that students will come to confuse information with education. It is my largest worry not because it is the most likely; I think good teaching can overcome it. It is the largest because it is the most grave. The universe of easily accessible information will put a new burden on the classroom teacher to make the distinction between information and education vivid for students. Today there is barely time in bibliographic instruction to get beyond search strategies to the fine points that permit self-moving scholarship. In the hypothetical future practically all our bibliographic instruction time will have to be spent on disciplinary methods for assessing information and bibliographic leads.

The ultimate question in education, certainly in my field of philosophy, has never been access to information; it has always been wisdom or the capacity to judge information and to construct knowledge and derive action from those judgments. Access is crucial, however, for almost all the sub-ultimate goals of education, including the important political goals of wide and roughly equal distribution of resources. When we get real access, and get the mother lode, we are likely, temporarily, to make the secondary goals of education primary and forget that the primary goal is not served by our new darling.

I worry that there will be a proliferation of junk data bases —a difficult category to define, since one person's propaganda is another's writ, and one person's scholarship is another person's ideology. It will be in the interest of each cult and movement to have its own data base, just as it will be in the interest of every valid micro-specialization of research. How will students distinguish a large data base of literature on creationism from one equally large on super-conducting ceramics? It is very easy for students to think that, if only one were interested in these esoteric subjects, good information is at hand, and that every pile of citations is as reassuring as every other. If students know that creationism is unscientific, or controversial, they might be armed with useful doubts; if they don't, they are liable to serious deception. How will students evaluate a data base on European history, with no give-away title, that happens to be thick with articles denying that the holocaust occurred and remarkably thin on the contrary position?

Students —and, I believe, some librarians— who are not already educated in a field cannot distinguish the wheat from the chaff in the data bases in that field, but frequently think that they can or that it is not necessary. Students already assume too hastily that access to information is the passport to objectivity, not realizing that ideological divisions require the information to be judged before it can be made useful. They will have the same problem with the diversity of data bases that they have today with the diversity of journals. And although on-line guides or filters will offer assistance, they will suffer from the same diversity of perspective and quality as the information they purport to organize." - Peter Suber, "The Database Paradox: Unlimited Information and the False Blessing of 'Objectivity'," Library Hi Tech, 10, 4 (1992) 51-57. I corrected one typographical error in preparing this HTML edition. Copyright © 1992, Peter Suber. http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/teachtec.htm