“Before the printing press,” writes Lawrence Summers in the Times’s Education Life section today, “scholars had to memorize ‘The Canterbury Tales’ to have continuing access to them.” That has to be one of the most dunderheaded sentences ever written by a former Harvard president and former Treasury secretary. The bound book was invented more than a thousand years before the printing press came along, and people were writing stuff down – on scrolls, tablets, blocks of wood – long before the book was created. In the 100 or so years between the writing of Chaucer’s masterpiece and the establishment of a printing trade in England, handwritten copies of “The Canterbury Tales” were fairly abundant, particularly for those who would qualify as scholars. It was one of the most popular books of the time. If you wanted “access” to the work, you didn’t have to pull Chaucer’s lines from your memory; you could read them from pages that looked like this:
Maybe Summers was confusing Chaucer with Homer, and the printing press with the alphabet.
Anyway, Summers’ historical howler comes, amusingly, in the service of an argument that students don’t need to learn stuff anymore: “in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.” I’ll leave aside the question of why Summers didn’t whip out his iPhone and google “Canterbury Tales” or “printing press” or “codex” while writing his article. But this idea that knowledge can be separated from facts – that we can know without knowing – really needs to be challenged before it gains any further currency. It’s wonderful beyond words that we humans can look things up, whether in books or from the web, but that doesn’t mean that the contents of our memory doesn’t matter. Understanding comes from context, and context comes from knowing stuff. Facts become most meaningful when, thanks to the miracle of memory, we weave them together in our minds into something much greater: personal knowledge and, if we’re lucky, wisdom.