Information Scarcity

The rise of universities in the C11-C12 was in response to the rise of merchants and traders who needed to keep track of their goods and exchanges in an orderly manner. There was also demand from traditional property owners to have access to those who knew the law and could prosecute or defend their interests in the courts.

At the time, the production of written material was simply writing things down. If one of the sons of a wealthy individual was sent off to become a scholar, they went to a university (Bologna, Paris, Oxford and later others) where they learned to read and write, and then would go to a hall with a few of their peers to record the words of an established scholar. The scholar would read, or recite from memory, information that was necessary for the learners to master, and the learners would write down everything that was said. In this way, books, written on vellum and later on paper, were produced. They contained the information that was recorded by students listening to a scholar.

This was, of course, in addition to the books that were reproduced in monasteries by scribes (clerks) who carefully copied, verbatim, works that were already in existence. Occasionally a monk would produce something new and original, but this was rare (Bede, or the authors of the Winchcombe Annals), and most of the effort was reproducing works that already existed for wealthy patrons. This was ubiquitous information scarcity.

Mechanical printing existed but was done by a process called woodcutting. A wooden plate was carved out and mounted on a press that could produce exact copies of a single page. Not really mechanical printing as we know it today. The invention of movable type in 1439 by Gutenberg changed the world of producing or reproducing the written word. This was the first major step away from the world of information scarcity

The introduction of printed books was (surprise, surprise) not universally welcomed. There were nobles who refused to have printed books in their libraries, preferring the more traditional hand written copies as proper books. Much of the Islamic world refused to embrace printed books and the Papal court initially tried to introduce licensing of printing presses (in order to control what was printed) and exercised heavy censorship wherever it could. Many secular governments took up where the Church failed and made registering, licensing, and heavy censorship as a way to control information.

To some extent, this has worked even to the present day where some governments control information with an iron fist.

However, with the introduction of movable type printing, the first barriers to the movement of the world from information scarcity to information abundance was in place. Of course, from that time, the oral transmission if information from scholars to learners (either by reading it for the learners or reciting it from memory), so they could write it all down began to fade from the formal learning environment. This wasn’t an immediate transition, however, and it is still going on today (almost 600 years later) with 90% of formal learning relying on a scholar reading, or reciting from memory, their wisdom with learners writing it all down as fast as they can. A massive innovation that has recently been introduced is the ability to display writing to the students as a scholar reads it to them. We call this a lecture, and it has a long and rich tradition that has to be correct because it is hundreds of years old.

I will explore some of the reasons for this, what research has to tell us about this, and recent philosophies (that are really thousands of years old) that are the foundation of modern education.

Stay tuned!                                                                                                                                                    

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?


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