If our courses and textbooks are about scarcity, the web is about abundance. This is true for primary and secondary materials. These now include multimedia. We can read Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats while listening to them. Or we can listen while scrolling through an archive of editorial cartoons about the first hundred days or the court-packing controversy. We can find image maps for presidential elections and compare electoral college and popular vote totals. We can listen to the music of the Harlem Renaissance at the Red Hot Jazz Archive while reading Langston Hughes’ poems at the Academy of American Poets or Zora Neale Hurston’s plays at American Memory.

We can think of the web as the untextbook. It has an indefinitely large number of pages on which we can find all sorts of resources. In authoring a web-based syllabus, I do not have to choose one painting to typify Leonardo’s genius. I can post as many as I wish. I can link to museum sites where expert curators analyze particular works. My students can manipulate the images. They can compare the restored version of The Last Supper to what it looked like before, if they wish, at a site put up by the University of Chicago Press. If I am unhappy with the wall map of the Atlantic world, circa 1500, my department owns, I can almost always find a map with the features I desire online, perhaps the QuickTime™ movie of the Brixen Globe at Yale. Furthermore, digital maps are often preferable to printed ones because of the interactivity they can provide. Students can explore ethnic neighborhoods in Jane Addams’ Chicago, for example, one of the many resources about Addams and Hull House put online by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

If you want your students to read firsthand accounts of the Dust Bowl in the United States at the Library of Congress or of the Peasant Rebellion in Germany of the 1520s at a course page at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, you can locate them online. Many instructors have, as a result, dispensed with supplementary readers. Linking to documents not only saves their students money but also permits instructors to build exactly the reader that fits their courses, and without worrying about permissions. The Modern History Source Book at Fordham, not to mention the other source books Paul Halsall has created, has taken care of that. Several colleagues and I had published our own reader for years. As of last year, there were only two documents we had included a dozen years ago that were not now available on the web.

This is far more than a convenience. The web creates synergy. Hughes maintained that he based the rhythms of his poems on the jazz he listened to in Harlem clubs. FDR’s mastery of radio as a medium of communication is a factoid in a textbook until students read one of his talks while listening to it. Then mastery means something, and it makes a difference in their grasp of the Great Depression era.

One student told me she could no longer imagine reading a nonfiction book without using the Internet. She was reading Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which has detailed discussions of art but no illustrations. She looked up the works he discussed so that she could see what he was writing about. She did the same when he analyzed Pascal’s Penseés and Rochefoucauld’s maxims. The web had made her a more active and engaged reader.

Using the Web to Change the Way Students Read

This is something that definitely needs doing. Students learn in their K–12 classes to look for the single main idea. Most screen out everything else as so much “noise.” They do not appreciate ambiguity; they ignore nuance. They read, in short, in precisely the opposite fashion from Jefferson and from the practicing historian. Sources may contain a single main idea, but the historian reads for complexities and confusions. And with the lively sense that others may also read this same source. Reading is a form of conversing. I often start my courses by sharing this excerpt from a letter by Machiavelli:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost.

—Letter to Francesco Vettori, December 10, 1513

The Prince is part of a conversation that stretches over millennia. Students do not think of themselves as entering “the ancient courts of ancient men” or asking “them the reasons for their actions.” They especially do not think of their own work as contributing to a conversation. We can do something about this. My assignment to entry-level students on The Prince and Thomas More’s Utopia (see “Some Very Detailed Examples,” Renaissance Humanism) differs from the norm in several ways, starting with its length. It is several orders of magnitude longer than the typical assignment. Then there is the detail it provides about the readings. Usually we ask students what Machiavelli wrote about advisors instead of telling them. Then there is the students’ task. It is to choose specific passages and, in effect, annotate them. Is there a method to all this?

The idea is to get students to read closely. If they are to do that, as novices working with documents, they need a lot of cues about what to read for. In the case of Machiavelli, the cues I provide point to his claim that he sees political situations as they are, not as we might wish them to be. For More, my cues are more directive. Catch him in the act of discussing princely conduct and comment on how similar or dissimilar his remarks are to Machiavelli’s. Here is part of what a student named Maura wrote. She quotes More’s response to Raphael, the traveler to Utopia, who claims that his advice would be ignored were he to attempt to advise a prince:

“. . . if ill opinions cannot be quite rooted out, and you cannot cure some received vice according to your wishes, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth; for the same reasons you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds. You are not obliged to assault people with discourses that are out of their road, when you see that their received notions must prevent your making an impression upon them. You ought rather to cast about and to manage things with all the dexterity in your power, so that if you are not able to make them go well they may be as little ill as possible; for except all men were good everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see.” More says here, like Machiavelli, that all men are not good. More believes that you must not stop because something is not working right. You must try your best to fix what is not working and not give up. This quote goes along with the quote from Machiavelli in chapter XVIII. Machiavelli, like More, says that a prince must do all that is in his power to protect his state. I’m not sure if More would agree with the Machiavelli when he says that you should use evil if necessary, but they both believe in the same end of protecting the state.

What makes her comments so excellent a place to begin a class discussion is that she both provides ways of connecting to other students’ notes and directly raises a key issue: Would More sanction the use of evil to advance the well-being of the commonwealth? As for the first, several students had quoted Raphael to the effect that royal courts were full of advisors, each seeking to gain favor by telling the prince what he thought the monarch wished to hear. Sam quoted this passage from Utopia:

Do not you think that if I were about any king, proposing good laws to him, and endeavoring to root out all the cursed seeds of evil that I found in him, I should either be turned out of his court or at least be laughed at for my pains? For instance, what could it signify if I were about the King of France, and were called into his Cabinet Council, where several wise men, in his hearing, were proposing many expedients, as by what arts and practices Milan may be kept, and Naples, that had so oft slipped out of their hands, recovered; how the Venetians, and after them the rest of Italy, may be subdued; and then how Flanders, Brabant, and all Burgundy, and some other kingdoms which he has swallowed already in his designs, may be added to his empire.

Raphael, Sam pointed out, would advise the King to foreswear war and focus instead upon the needs of his own citizens. What would Machiavelli advise? I asked. This elicited passages about always preparing for war. What about wars of conquest? Blank looks. Machiavelli sees war as unavoidable. Why? This produced passages about human nature, returning us to a point Maura made. What students did not suggest was Machiavelli’s situation as an Italian. So I returned to the passage Sam had quoted and we read the rest of the paragraph in which Raphael details the plots the advisors recommend for conquering Italy. War was a fact of life, if you were living in Florence. This brought us back to Maura’s question about using evil to protect the state. We turned to Machiavelli first. Students offered numerous passages in which he explained that “if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his [the prince’s] ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.” This, I summarized, is at the heart of the challenge Machiavelli’s “realism” poses. He insists that virtue can lead to ruin and that the ruler cannot follow traditional Judeo-Christian morality much of the time. The prince, for example, must be a “great liar” on occasion. Students easily found other examples such as the use of cruelty and the explanation of why miserliness is preferable to liberality in a prince. More, we then concluded, flirts with this idea in the passage Maura quoted but does not embrace it.

Discussions that engage genuine historical questions require the flexibility that abundance makes possible. Students need to find their own examples. Novice users of ancient texts are not going to understand everything they read. They will, and do, understand some of it. A discussion, if it is to be productive, must focus upon what they do understand and build upon that. It must also encourage their questions about what they do not understand. Asking them “Why, according to Machiavelli, is it better for the prince to be feared than loved” and similar questions is much less likely to produce a useful discussion. The focus shifts to the “right” answers. Students who found the relevant chapter confusing may panic. I allow students to discover their own ways into the materials.

As we learn to create student assignments that take advantage of the new abundance, we can do much to make our students better readers.

  • The web can afford multiple points of entry to topics so that students can try on different approaches.
  • It can encourage flexibility in learning by providing diverse sources and by modeling diverse techniques.
  • It can encourage mental links across time and among diverse materials.