Learning in a time of abundance – historical background

People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room

- Ani Difranco

I had a awesome conversation last week with a colleague at UPEI. We talked a bit about a new course she’s putting together, a bit about the course that I teach in the same program and, more broadly, about education. She’d been kind enough to come and watch a presentation I’d given on campus and had mentioned that the ‘history of knowledge’ piece that I did at the start of my presentation was the missing piece that gave her better insight into what I’ve been talking about with rhizomatic learning. I realized that I have never actually blogged the piece: it’s something that has developed over the last year, entirely in my presentations.

Note: This is a snapshot of the change of knowing in the Greco-Roman tradition. Were we talking about the Egyptians, the Chinese, India or meso-America the snapshot would, of course, be different.

What it Means to be Recognized as a ‘Knower’
For those of you that haven’t read it (shame on you), Bonnie Stewart’s Techknowledge: Literate Practice and Digital Worlds (2000) is pretty fantastic. It started my long journey from thinking of words like ‘knower’ and ‘learning’ as things that were static and obvious to understanding them as flexible and subject to the influence of context. It emphasizes how everything is negotiated; how things change with time. (As with Ani’s lament above for the loss of purity in the recording.) The focus of the thesis is how there is an intersection of technology and knowledge where the nature of ‘what it means to know’ changes along with the technology. Being a ‘knower’ in 1000BC would not necessarily include being a reader whereas after the printing press it necessarily would. The value of memory hasn’t gone away with the near ubiquity of the internet, but it’s tough to say it’s important in the same way.

A lot of so-called ’21st century literacies’ aren’t actually new, in the sense that we’ve never seen them before: some of them just got forgotten or re-framed in the long history of knowledge and education. I think we’ve been connecting, for instance, for a long time. But as technologies and needs have changed, different priorities and practices have moved to the forefront as important, and others have taken more of a backseat. Take this post as sort of a journey, then, through the last 3000 years or so: I want to look at how the technologies that underpin our ideas intersect with the ways we teach those ideas to each other.

In the Beginning Was The Odyssey
When I think about knowing and how it’s changed, I like to think about The Odyssey. It’s my favourite of the Greek relics (I love this version read by Ian McKellen) Take a minute and think about what the question “Do you know the Odyssey?” would have meant to different people at different times. Take it a little further: think about what the answer “I know it very well” would mean in the bardic era, as compared to now. Then, it meant you could recite the whole poem from memory. Now, it generally means you know what the title refers to, and may know the gist of the story. The the act of knowing (and by extension, the act of learning) is impacted by the technology available at a given time. How would The Odyssey have been taught 2500 years ago or a 1000? A hundred? How can we teach it now?

Going to see Molon of Rhodes – Delivery, Delivery and Delivery
Cicero and Caesar were two of the real luminaries of the time of the fall of the Roman Republic. They were mostly on opposite sides of the fight for control of Rome on account of them being members of opposite political parties. Still, they shared a reputation as two of the best orators in the city. While Caesar had made his career through a combination of political connections (his family was ancient, and his uncle Marius the most famous man in Rome) and his astonishing military career, Cicero made his entire career on the power of his voice alone. In that particular time and place, the power to speak, to convince, to cajole, to do battle with your voice was critical.

In their quest to become better orators, they both sought out the same man – Appolonius Molon of Rhodes. Cicero met him in the 80′s BCE in Rome and then sought him out on the island of Rhodes a decade later. Caesar took the dangerous journey to Rhodes himself and was captured by pirates. Here’s what that trip would look like according to the excellent ORBIS project

From Rome to Rhodes

Caesar was willing to take a trip of 2000KM through pirate-infested waters in order to learn from one man. From one perspective, the things that he was interested in learning were performative… something perhaps better done face to face. At this time, however, most things were performative. Plays were performed. Speeches might be written down but as a record of a performance. Caesar believed he needed to go and find the one person who could help him perform better.

What it meant to know, in this case, was TO DO. To learn was to do better.

The Death of the Argument
Socrates famously lamented that once written, an argument can no longer defend itself. That writing can let someone appear smart, because they can simply read something without actually understanding it. It makes interesting reading if you’re into such things. The point here is that the switch to things being written down, as a matter of course, is a critical turning point in the history of knowing and learning. While memory certainly had an important role to play in the pre-writing period, it changed significantly. Learning became what is called a catechetical act. Read and repeat. Memorize as written.

This is a shift from the discursive model described above. In the catechetical case there is a RIGHT answer. There is a specific given thing that you are supposed to commit to memory, and the most effective means to learn it is to have someone say it out loud and someone else repeat it. There are certainly stories of people who did not learn like this (Peter Abelard for instance) but he is more the exception that proves the rule.

The technology of writing allows for words to be hardened, or recalled. We have an established canon to be learned.

Gertrude’s textbook
Before the coming of the printing press, the vast majority of learners, whether in churches or in schools, would not have had access to the original text of anything. The crafting of a book (scroll, whatever) was a laborious, specialist process and they weren’t just handing them out to let everyone touch them with their grimy fingers. If a text was handled at all (and not just recalled from memory) it would have been read from the lectern.

This whole process of copy stuff down, commit it to memory and get other people to do that stuff is not a terribly efficient way to teach lots of people. It required someone with a fair amount of knowledge to do the calling out for the call and repeat stuff… and even with the printing of books, you still needed to be able to READ them. Teachers were in short supply. Bring on Swiss educational mastermind Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Pestalozzi was an educational experimenter in Switzerland. From one venture to another, win or lose, he kept exploring new ways to teach. At a high point of success around 1800 he approached the Swiss government with the idea of trying to teach all the poor people of the country. He wrote a book called “How Gertrude Teaches her Children” in which he described how one might break down the different details of something that someone needed to learn (math, reading whatever) into basic parts so that anyone – whether trained as a teacher or not – could teach someone else.

Within the same broad time frame, the same idea emerged from the mind of one of the more interesting businessmen to ever grace the field of education; one Mr. Noah Webster of dictionary fame. His textbooks, first simple text versions and soon textbooks with PICTURES, were designed to be used by anyone, regardless of their ability or knowledge level (within reason) to teach the material. Raise your hand if you’ve never been or had a substitute teacher who read from the textbook, assigned the questions from the back of the chapter, and never yet understood what they were talking about. Yeah. I didn’t think so.

The textbook has a huge democratizing power in that it can allow many, many more people to learn the same thing. If we are trying to give people a set list of skills that they can reproduce at will, it can be very effective. Think of how efficient a technology the textbook is… it contains the content, the assessment and the pedagogy. All in one pile. Thank you 19th century!

It further emphasizes knowledge as set. As right or wrong. As established.

Bring on the internets
As with the oral traditions, the handwritten period, the period of print so now we have a new technology underwriting the way we communicate ideas to each other. We need not make the 2000km journey braving pirates to get together and talk about our practice. This need not be a one way conversation where I’m reciting the ideas of our forebears to you for you to repeat. Neither was I forced to take a position about open online learning a year ago to allow time for the printing process. I doesn’t actually need to be me vs. you. We can talk to each other, almost directly. Influence each other’s work in the way, I like to think, Socrates would approve of.

What does it mean to be open and online?

What does this mean for words like quality? How much of our desire for perfection in things like spelling and argument are directly related to the finality of print? Are they a ‘good’ in and of themselves or are they a result of the requirements of the technologies involved with print? Should we leave our arguments half finished and release them early and often as some have suggested?

Openness also brings is diversity. When you teach a course in any given city, there are implicit norms that apply to the learning process. It might be in a country where debate is common, or frowned upon. A place where one is expected to be silent, or where people are very physical. A local course, paid for in advance, also serves as a filtering process that can serve to make a more uniform group of learners.

We have none of these barriers here(there are still some of course, but far, far fewer). In an open environment I might have people from all over. I might have people coming from vastly diverse backgrounds and influences. I could have an open syllabus where everyone contributed to the curriculum…

Abundance. Of content. Of perspectives. Of backgrounds. Of potential connections. This is the fundamental change the technology brings to us.

My response to abundance is to try and structure my class rhizomatically. What is yours?

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4 thoughts on “Learning in a time of abundance – historical background

  1. As a historian, I have to say this is wonderful. I’ll have to read it several times to make all the connections between Homer (whose Odyssey I use extensively), Caesar, Cicero, Abelard and my own work. Even reading about them all in the same blog post is just damned inspiring.

    Perhaps there are still pirates, though – the pirates of commercialization, closed systems, and societal apathy and anti-intellectualism.

  2. I’m impressed that the very organization of this post embodies the meaning of the post: you are incorporating an historical, evolutionary view of knowledge and how we handle it. The notion of evolving, changing, rhizomatic knowledge has always been the case, I think, but that was difficult to see in the past when knowledge evolved so slowly that any generation could think of it as eternal, timeless, non-evolutionary. When nothing new has emerged within the memory of any living person, then knowledge must be permanent and timeless, and it is the experts, seers, prophets, and all those otherwise closest to the eternal gods who possess the right answers. It made sense, then, to seek out the authority when looking for answers.

    Answers today change so quickly that we can no longer deceive ourselves that knowledge is timeless. It isn’t. Like everything else in the universe, knowledge is time-bound, emergent and evolutionary, constantly generating new answers. Today, our technology makes that happen so much faster; hence, the abundance. I like this.

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