During the 3rd Millennium BC in Ancient Sumer, people in the large settlements located throughout Mesopotamia invented a means for keeping track of commodities through the use of pictographs pressed into clay tablets. Thus through record keeping a form of writing, known as cuneiform came into the world. Examples of cuneiform writing can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Ancient Near Eastern Art wing. The Sumerians may not have been aware of the significance of their breakthrough at the time, but because of their efforts, ancient history ceases being the conjecture of archaeology and becomes the more specific discipline of describing people, places and events that actually existed. Through the invention of cuneiform writing we know of Gilgamesh, a legendary Sumerian king who may or may not have existed about 4500 years ago. The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the oldest literary works ever created and certainly the oldest to survive to this day.
Much like today the politics and culture of the Middle East were violent and unpredictable with kingdoms and cultures displacing or assimilating one another for millennia. The stone and bronze ages are filled with the sad stories of cultures rising, falling and leaving no trace of their unique way of life for posterity. By the time Alexander the Great led the first European conquerors into the Middle East, power had shifted among various kingdoms many times over. Today Sumerian culture has ceased to exist for millennia but because of their writings and artifacts we know more about them than we know about other, much more recent cultures, like many (but certainly not all) Native American tribes, who did not record their literature or history in written form. Many other peoples, such as the ancient Chinese and Mayan cultures, independently invented writing and thus recorded their history, literature, religion and scientific achievements. To those cultures all mankind owes a considerable debt of gratitude. Human progress, as an inexorable forward motion toward longer and fuller lives, exists only by the grace of recorded human expression. The 21st Century offers unprecedented opportunities for expression and dissemination of written information. The opportunities for people around the world to learn and express themselves are unprecedented. Could the world now find itself on the brink of a new golden age of learning?
Learning is what makes human beings different from every other species. While other organisms can be taught rudimentary skills, the human capacity to acquire, retain and act upon information is unparalleled. Unfortunately as human beings, and thus living animals, our lives must be maintained through the acquisition of food, water and shelter. Thus the average person does not have much time to devote to learning, experimentation or teaching. Before writing, knowledge could only be spread orally. Oral knowledge is fragile and the least permanent form of information. Oral knowledge is probably also the most difficult knowledge to inculcate in a pupil. If some cataclysm were to wipe out the people who possessed a particular branch of oral knowledge, that knowledge would then be lost to posterity. It makes you wonder how many times in history must people have had to reinvent crucial building or farming techniques. Stories like “Robinson Crusoe”, “Castaway” or “Lost” poignantly illustrate the difficulty of having relearn basic scientific, agricultural and technological principles.
Tom Hank’s struggle to create fire with only rocks, sticks and a vague knowledge of ancient fire-making techniques is the perfect example. Many times over, even written knowledge was lost to the vast majority of people. The Romans acquired, assimilated and distilled much of what was known to the ancient world. The Romans learned and modified Greek culture, art and architecture. The Romans in turn created even greater engineering marvels, like Roman roads, aqueducts and the Coliseum. When the Roman Empire fell, however, the delicate infrastructure that they had created soon disintegrated. The division of labor that characterizes most great societies was lost in Europe and Asia, forcing people to devote all of their time to the barest survival. The standard of living plummeted and with it literacy rates. After only a few hundred years the knowledge of mathematics, science and literature that characterized Greco-Roman society was forgotten and inaccessible to the average European. Ancient knowledge was preserved by two unlikely sources. Christian churches and monasteries, who had been staunch opponents of what they had viewed as “pagan” culture, recorded and preserved all manner of ancient text. The British monk, Bede, who wrote and read extensively, collected over 500 books from around Europe in his library, which was, during the 7th Century, one of the largest in the world. The efforts of monks like Bede, helped preserve learning through one of the darkest periods of intellectual history.
The other sanctuary for ancient knowledge was among the scholars and authors of Islam. When various Muslim powers invaded the decaying remains of the Roman Empire, they encountered ancient learning. Islamic scholars preserved and studied science and mathematics extensively. Greek scholars like Pythagoras and Euclid had made stunning observations in the realm of geometry but using only the cumbersome Roman system of numbering, mathematics was tragically limited in the ancient world. Through the innovative Arabic number system, however, mathematics sprinted forward in the creation of algebra by Muslim scholars.
Ironically some of the most violent political upheavals in history are responsible for the rekindling of learning in the West. The Crusades, though certainly misguided and poorly planned adventures that failed to achieve any lasting territorial gains, did bring back, among other spoils, the scholarly works of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt as well as the discoveries of the Muslims themselves. The spreading of knowledge back into Europe sowed the first seeds of the Renaissance.
Another unlikely figure is responsible for further dissemination. Genghis Kahn, the notorious Mongolian warlord and king, did a great deal to further learning throughout the world. Genghis Kahn’s military conquests spanned Europe and Asia from China through Eastern Europe. While Kahn could certainly be a ruthless warrior, he respected knowledge and actually brought back scholars from his conquests. In fact, Kahn created a palace in Mongolia to house and pamper his scholars. Kahn encouraged intellectual communication by bringing such people to together. The unification of territories achieved by Kahn’s conquests also allowed unparalleled communication between East and West along the well maintained and regulated Silk Roads.
Thus the Renaissance germinated from these seeds of warfare. After the Black Death and Hundred Years War had effectively halved the population of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, the paucity of laborers in Europe forced kings and merchants to offer competitive wages to the peasantry. The resulting increased standard of living, created the modern middle class. Into this prosperous society, the Renaissance at last exploded, ushering in the modern Era. The Protestant Reformation weakened the Catholic Church and to a large degree liberated learning from the constraints of religion. The engineering gains of the Renaissance, particularly in ship-building, led to the Age of Exploration and the colonization of the New World. Suddenly goods and information began to flow in every direction. Since the Renaissance the fire of learning has never dimmed and the Dark Ages have never returned. Instead the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution created the modern world in which we live. The Industrial Revolution has never exactly come to an end but rather morphed into a new form of engineering that is focused on thrift, efficiency and profit.
One reason for the exponential growth of science and technology has been the positive feedback loop created by the advance of telecommunications and transportation. The great enemy to learning throughout history has always been isolation. Overland transportation was, for the overwhelming portion of history, extremely rudimentary relying on beasts of burden to carry humans and their goods across land forms. The world known to the ancients was limited to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East precisely because ancient people could not breach the Himalayas or the Sahara. Naval transportation was superior to land transportation (and still is), and allowed international trade and communication to exist at all. The earliest commercial powers, such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans were all skilled naval powers and were also well versed in what learning was available at the time. For most of history communication and transportation were basically the same thing. Communication was only possible through the sending of messages and messengers. This is why, although writing had made the accumulation of knowledge possible for millennia, an era of explosive intellectual growth like the Renaissance took so long to come about.
The first major communication breakthroughs were thus transportation breakthroughs. Improvements in shipbuilding and navigation (a combination of European and Arab innovation) finally allowed human beings access to one another everywhere on the globe. This greater access sped the dissemination of information and thus, learning. Isaac Newton, during this exciting era, famously observed “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton, after all, had taken all that was known of algebra, geometry and the physical sciences to basically create physics and calculus, both of which contributed immeasurably to scientific theory and application. The Industrial Revolution created the steam engine, steel and finally the next great communications leap, the railroad, the first major overland transportation innovation since the domestication of the horse. During the 19th century Samuel Morse also invented the telegraph, at last allowing humans near instant communication over long distances. Alexander Graham Bell then allowed people to speak to one another over such distances. The pace of advancement quickened. During the 20th century human beings could suddenly send written documents electronically. Finally came computers and then perhaps the greatest communications innovation of all time, the internet.
Think for a moment, my readers, of the impossibility of doing what you are doing right now. You are reading my thoughts and ideas that I have committed to posterity electronically across however many miles separate you from New York City, where I am writing this article. While I am certainly no scholar of such ilk, consider the possibilities of Newton and Leibniz conversing via cell phone or internet the way you and I can communicate. Once the Encyclopedia Britannica could be considered a miracle; now the almost the entirety of human knowledge and experience is available to the whole world. Now we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
Now I am aware of the world in which we live. While we have advanced so far in science and technology, we have not eradicated human misery. Despite each civilizing innovation human nature asserts itself in the form of wars, famine and oppression. In no other branch of technogical endeavor has mankind advanced quite like military science, which for a half century, has given people the ability to annihilate the entire race. I readily acknowledge the truth of mankind’s obvious fallibility. Albert Einstein once said “Intelligence has great muscles but no imagination.” Our knowledge and intelligence are tools at our disposal. Just as dynamite can be used to build a tunnel or kill people, knowledge can be used to mankind’s benefit or destruction. Knowledge is not a living thing, however, and cannot be blamed for our most deplorable acts of violence anymore than a gun can be blamed for a murder. It is the hand that holds the gun and the mind that misuses knowledge that is at fault. Human nature will never be eradicated and thus as we grow more knowledgeable we must become more vigilant as to how knowledge is used. Nonetheless, the progression of human understanding is a good thing and if there are risks to increasing the amount of knowledge available to all, it should only be more incentive to take greater care in molding the character of our children.
Plato believed in the possibility of a perfect race of beings. In “The Republic” Plato describes a world harmoniously ruled by philosopher kings. Plato asserted that the education of the ruling class, or “guardians”, should be carefully balanced to produce worldly, active and yet thoughtful human beings who would grow up to be versatile enough that they would always know the right course to take when facing danger. Thomas Jefferson similarly envisioned a world of small, independent farmers who would, at the same time, be well educated in the knowledge and philosophies of the Enlightenment. Jefferson felt that by having their “hands in the soil” and yet also possessing an awareness of the lessons of history and philosophy, the American people would be virtuous and active citizens. I believe that for most of human history the expense of higher education and the time it takes complete such learning has made Jefferson’s vision impractical-that is until now.
This week, while touring I-tunes for podcasts, I discovered “I-University,” a new program that offers lectures from universities around the country in an incredible range of subjects. These lectures are available for free download. I have always tried to continue learning. I have a Bachelor’s Degree and I intend to take a Masters Degree in the next few years but in the meantime I have been working to support myself, writing and traveling. The continual expansion of my knowledge, experience and understanding has always been a principle goal of mine, however. I believe that we forestall aging psychologically to the degree that we keep learning. I read books very often but I don’t always have the time and books are expensive. I am a Wikipedia addict, following link after link to clarify my understanding of science, history and the rules of baseball but I don’t always have time or an internet connection. The advent of podcasts and I-University now make it possible to learn college course material anywhere completely free of charge. Thus, when I ride the subway, I can also learn about abnormal psychology, economic theory or political science. Consider how much the proliferation of college level knowledge in this way can improve the understanding of people. We can use modern technology to become the virtuous and knowledgeable citizens that Plato and Jefferson envisioned. Such a development in the history of learning is a miracle that should be appreciated and embraced by everyone.
I believe that knowledge is not only a tool but an end. Learning is enjoyable for me. I have always said that if I won the lottery I would do pretty much what I do now: write, teach, travel and continue my education. I have always been an ardent admirer of history and have often deplored my own time as prosaic and vacuous by comparison to the Greeks, Romans or Colonial Americans. I am now beginning to realize that I may have been mistaken. While the internet is filled with spam and pornography, I also find myself continually learning through this tool. While my i-pod contains episodes of South Park and Chappelle Show, I am also learning about history, philosophy and psychology from professors at Berkley, MIT and Penn State. While television can be a never ending litany of melodrama and advertisement, if I flip a few channels I can learn about renovating a house, cooking a gourmet meal or the murky history of the Middle Ages. I know that many Americans out there are growing fatter and dumber on bad food and pop culture. I know our president is a moron and the world hates us. But with such a flood of information at our finger tips, sooner or later the genius of mankind, its capacity for action and understanding, will reassert itself and we may yet enter a new Renaissance in which we can all stand on the shoulders of giants and peer out to the ends of the Universe.