I’ve just been on a fascinating journey through the ages of learning and knowledge. Only someone with a clear understanding of the pursuit of understanding through the ages could construct this book and define these ages – each one acknowledging a different culture around knowledge and giving us different insight into today’s era when we have no lack of access to information – but who knew we had such different ways to seek wisdom?
[as an aside, I particularly loved the comparison and interwoven contexts with other cultural histories, particularly the arab world, sanskrit and china. The cultural contrast is not something we often reflect on].
- The Library -‘by transforming a largely oral scholarly tradition into a largely written one, the library made the Greek intellectual tradition both portable and heritable’
In Alexandria, the first library collected every text it could lay its hands on as travellers visited this great trading centre. A first attempt to capture everything out there – oral traditions that had been scribed, translations complete with errors etc. Nowadays with Wikipedia and Google’s attempts to digitise the world’s library collections we still like the idea of capturing everything and we understand more acutely that the meaning is crucially contextualised by the authors, translators and scribes.
- The Monastery -‘monasteries not only preserved learning through the centuries of civilisational collapse but forged new links from the study of written texts to the marking and measurement of time’
This period brought knowledge to everyday people and this was its value and popularity. A narrower set of texts such as the Bible were learnt and ritualised. This was a period of providing the populus with guidance of how to live, based on the wisdom to be found in sacred texts and inner reflection and meditation – a stark contrast to the explorations in how to think and debate of the Ancient Greek philosophers. And because the populus needed to know when to celebrate key events like Easter, this period heralded sophisticated calculations and calenders. In reading this chapter I was struck by how much mindfulness and meditation is promoted on my Facebook feed and also the everyday guidance material I devour – ’10 Ways to parent like X’ or ’15 top tips for Y’.
- The University – ‘Europe’s medieval revival generated greater mobility, new towns, more contacts beyond Christendom – a reconfiguration of space demanding a reordering of knowledge’
The University exists today – a teacher with students, online or physically in the same space and importantly the opportunity to discuss, learn and interpret. This model first appeared in the twelfth century in various cities (Bologna, Paris, later Oxford and Cambridge) where groups of students coalesced to learn from masters. The buildings and physical institutions came later and indeed one of the first institutional arrangements was the governance and legal rights to govern its members as these groups of students, masters and other guilds became corporations – ‘universitas’
- The Republic of Letters – ‘amid crises in scholarly culture, correspondence networks created a new Western intelligentsia independent of past institutions and receptive to new discoveries’
This section amazed me the most. Who knew that 1500-1800 nurtured some of the greatest thinkers via a postal network that managed to remain apolitical, immune to social class and to ignore religious differences? “Europe’s diversity brought progress in scholarship when by rights disunity ought to have crippled it”. Letter writers corresponded to learn, to debate and to share results and even measurements (data) for other’s theories. This tradition created academies, journals and museums and while those artifacts remain, the model is mirrored in the blogosphere, discussion forums and personal learning networks that exist today.
- The Disciplines – ‘evangelical protestants and secular humanists combined to create the first national system of mass public education, and with it a new market for academic specialties’
The University emerged again and this time the institution took a different form spearheaded by German protestants seeking to mould the inner person, “not cookie cutter gentleman by drilling them”. Halle and Gottingen crafted the seminar as a teaching technique with Gottingen moving away from Halle’s religious curriculum to classical Greek philology. The specialisation approach to education offered to everyone is the University model we see today.
- The Laboratory – ‘the laboratory physically enclosed a domain of objective fact, and the extension of its methods to ever wider public and private spaces enlarged the realms of scientific experts’
The laboratory, scientific method and experimentation is the final theme covered in the book. Another favourite book of mine is Sophie’s World (a history of western philosophy) and it too finishes with the scientific method as the most recent era in human thought, so it is the era we are most familiar with and unconsciously steeped in.
To take this journey through the ages of how we have ‘reinvented knowledge’ has given me plenty to reflect on. I love that the strands of these forms all exist today and I’m amused to try and imagine living in a world with certain forms dominating.
I definitely feel inspired to tackle a modern take on this topic, which will grapple with personal knowledge management – how do we learn best in this modern digital world?
What do you think?