Why is it that local television seems to feature so many single-source presentations? By this I mean programs with a single person talking on and on about a subject. The subject could be anything – how the Spanish came to govern these islands, how old tools were fashioned from bone or shell, the importance of the family gathering on the old farm, the horrors of the last war. Even things like the mating habits of your favorite bird species. In these video presentations we hear one person doing just about all the talking. (Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about this since I’ve been featured in such presentations myself.)
But these single-source presentations are not confined to the screen. We find a lot of the same in the printed pages of books these days. Chapters, or even entire books, featuring the memories of an individual – many of them tracing the author’s family history on the island, but some centered on broader historical or cultural themes.
Please understand that I have no complaint about these single-source presentations, whether on the screen or on the printed page. Many are well-written, instructive, sometimes enchanting. I’ve spent satisfying evenings learning about different aspects of life here on the island. I’d have to say the same about the works I’ve read on other islands in the region as well - sometimes in the form of traditional histories passed down over the generations. In fact, I’m proud to say that I possessed two of these histories about a single island in Chuuk.
So what’s the problem with single-source presentations, then, if they can be informative and enjoyable?
The problem is simply the term that we use to describe them. Let’s not call the writings academic or the video presentations documentaries. Documentaries are visual presentations that feature several different persons speaking on a particular subject. They usually show these individuals on screen. But even if they don’t, they offer evidence from the narration that the filmmaker consulted more than just one person in compiling the film. In other words, they are not “single-source” presentations.
The same can be said of written material. Recent discussions – or should I say arguments? – have convinced me that many people use the term “academic” incorrectly. They seem to believe that any publication treating a serious topic should be labeled “academic.” Not according to my understanding of the term. This word should not be understood simply to mean that the work is intended to be taken seriously. Much less does it signal that the book or article is nearly unreadable because of its technical language. Academic works can be digestible and even gripping. What makes them academic is that they, like video documentaries, are not “single-source” pieces.
“Academic” originally meant the product of the academy – that is, the place where minds met to ponder subjects and try to develop a common understanding of how the world works. The ancient Greeks back then, and we today, believe that the means of acquiring a common understanding of anything was to seek different voices – not just a single person, no matter how well-informed he or she might be. This is what “academics” call multiple sources – no matter whether they are written or videoed. The different sources need to be evaluated, or weighed against one another, so that we can come up with a conclusion – one that may not necessarily represent the full truth, but comes as close to it as possible. (Footnotes are just a way of laying out the different sources we’ve used.)
So, “multiple source” is the key difference from the “single source” works that sometimes pretend to be academic. The first is a work that takes into consideration different viewpoints, even contradictory ones, comparing them before coming to a conclusion. The other is reliance on a single enlightened viewpoint.
We can avoid arguing about things (as I am admittedly not doing here). If we really want to be sure that we keep the peace, it might be easier to simply trot out our single-person narratives. I’ve done that myself at times. But I’ve always tried to make it clear at the outset that these are based on my own observations and not much more.
In the end, there is no problem with single-source productions, as I’ve said. They can be informative and enjoyable, as I’ve also said. Just don’t call them “academic” – unless you want to pick a fight with me!
Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the research-pastoral institute Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.