Too Old

Too Old October 8, 2014

A student sent me this e-mail recently:

Dr. McGrath,

Sorry about the multiple emails. I’m not sure if we went over this or not but I was wondering what your thoughts were on about how far back we should go when deciding which articles to use? I have all mine set, but one is from the nineties and I didn’t know if that was too old or not. If you can just let me know whenever you get the chance that’d be great. Thanks!
The student is expressing concern about something emphasized in information literacy – the “C” in the “CRAP Test” which indicates currency.
It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Frantic” when Harrison Ford’s character is asked what kind of music he likes, and he says “old music.” He is then asked whether he likes what is on the radio, as that is a few years old.
I don’t blame the student for this. What is meant by “old” or “recent” depends on the subject and the frame of reference. World War II is both recent history and a long time ago.
Scholarship moves slowly, and in searching for information, one should not go back more than around 50 years to get a sense of the current state of the field, but neither is looking at the latest monograph proposing something new the best approach if that is what you are interested in. A recent textbook will probably be the best place to look for the current consensus.
Be that as it may, having studied in the 1990s, I found the question of whether scholarship from the 90s is “too old” made me feel old.
Students today are too young for us to be able to presume that they’ve seen The Matrix. But a lot of them have seen Friends. And many of us are too old to realize just how young most of our students are, are and how many things that we take for granted they do not – and vice versa.
What do you consider old scholarship, music, movies, history? What do you consider recent? And what different perspective someone else had made you feel old?

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  • Charles Bauserman

    Now, there is the rare exception. For instance, A.T. Robertson’s Greek Grammar was one of Steve Runge’s primary sources for his Discourse Grammar of the NT, and Robertson’s is 100 years old. But that’s only because Robertson actually took a linguistic stance toward Greek without having a proper framework or terminology to describe what he was seeing. Runge formalized the terminology and the framework (along with bringing together Stephen Levinsohn and a few other discussion partners).
    Smyth’s Classical Greek Grammar has become a gold standard for diachronic Greek language study, amongst other things (including understanding how some stuff in Koine is doing what it’s doing), and Smyth’s is almost 100.
    So, on some rare occasions, other gentlemen from the hallowed past can still prove their relevance today…

  • Anything that was not current when I went to college (mid-1970s) is too old. Anything published after I went to college is revisionist nonsense.

  • arcseconds

    I’m kind of with Goethe here: “he who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth”.

    Frankly, I’ve always read old books, listened to old music, and watched old movies, and I’ve never understood the ‘too old’ thing. I’m far more contemporary in my music tastes now than I was when I was 12! (I only liked Beethoven back then).

    I can remember a few years ago watching some teenagers rock out to “Bohemian Rapsody”, thinking that “man, they must think that’s a really old song”, then I remembered that it was already an old song when I was into Queen, and I didn’t know, or care. It’s permanently the anthem of mildly disaffected youth.

    As far as scholarship goes, in some fields of course you’re supposed to read the classics.

    Actually, it interested me that in Truth and Method, Gadamer seems to be of the opinion that historians would prefer to read Droysen than other, more contemporary works. Does anyone who’s actually studied history have anything to say about that?

  • “Too old” as far as academic paper is concerned is quite relative. If a paper is the more recent reference there is in a particular subject, the. It is not old, regardless of when it may have been published. I love old books to. In fact, one of the most readable books I have ever read was an 1814 treatise on flatworms, my own research field, and I learned a thing or two! BTW, I went to college j. The 80s, so you’ll get no sympathy from me… (:-)

  • Just told one of my younger students he was spamming me. He didn’t have a clue what “spam” was, and I couldn’t think of a way to explain it that wouldn’t then involve having to explain what herbal Viagra, Russian brides, or “anatomical” enlargement pills were.