The Summers’ Tale

“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.

9 thoughts on “The Summers’ Tale

  1. Pish PoshBlog

    This is a wonderful post. It reminds me of when I ask my students to write about literacy and they write essays complaining that literacy is easy and there’s no reason for anyone to be illiterate or culturally illiterate other than laziness. Their essays are rife with spelling errors, typos, grammatical inconsistencies – but most of all, factual errors, critical thinking errors, and in some cases “text-speak.” They don’t seem to get the irony.

    I don’t begrudge my 18 year old students, but I sure hold Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, accountable for such a gaffe.

    Why is it that so often when one is proclaiming loudly the needlessness of education and knowledge, they so clearly demonstrate their own lack of education and knowledge?

    Eloquent piece as always, thank you.

  2. Shaun

    “I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.” is my favourite dunderheaded sentence by Larry Summers, with the stuff about women not being any good at maths coming a close second.

    Our next World Bank president, apparently.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Nick, I don’t know if I’m going over the other side here, or meddling in politics I don’t understand. But I don’t think Summers was saying what you characterize “But this idea that knowledge can be separated from facts …”

    There’s various ways that idea is used by con-men, that’s true. But in the context of the eternal whats-wrong-with-education debate, there’s huge pressure to turn public education into a grinding test mill of regurgitation. Because it’s cheap and easy to administer. Memorize this today, multiple-choice tomorrow, score rankings the next day. I hope Summers is on the side of the angels saying this isn’t a good path, rather than the side of the evangelists who want to spend the public education dollars on tech boondoggles.

    But it’s not that facts have zero importance and deserve absolutely no study. Rather, it’s that the memorize/test regime is not very educational.

  4. Nick Carr


    Since Summers was specifically aiming his remarks and recommendations at higher education, not primary or secondary public education, I don’t see any reason to believe he was talking about the “test mill” movement in the public schools. I think it’s clear he was making a larger point about “factual mastery” in the age of books.

    Otherwise, I agree with you.


  5. Kelly Roberts

    This is in fact exactly the same bullshit we hear repeatedly in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, etc.–the hard-selling of “active” learning over “passive” learning, almost always by someone with a vested interest in the former (

    Summers: “And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.”

    What evidence? And how the hell is writing an essay or solving an equation or designing a chemistry experiment not an active use of knowledge?

    You’ll recall Headmaster Cushing and his infamous bookless library. His justification was remarkably similar to this one. They’re all the same.

  6. an691

    “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. ”

    Lol, good one! Had a great laugh on this one.

    And great piece, too.

    Clearly some basic stuff (knowledge wise) are lost these days, replace by stranged preconceived ideas …

  7. Llane

    I don’t think we should put aside the issue of why he didn’t just Google the information. The argument that facts no longer need to be remembered is predicated on the idea that one will access them when necessary. This means that at a minimum one must know when it’s necessary.

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    Llane, I think that’s one of those cognitive errors that easy to jump on for the embarrassment value, and will be treated that way, but don’t really imply what the sneering will make of it. I mean, I know the reaction can be (imagine this in a sing-song voice) “Nyah-nyah, you made an err-or, you’re a stu-pid id-iot, got-cha!”. Anyone of low status would certainly be treated that way.

    But – how DOES one know when it’s necessary? That is, remember the old saying “It’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you know that isn’t so”. If you believe FACTS-MUST-BE-MEMORIZED!!!, and you make a mistake recalling or writing one of the memorized facts, how do you know you’ve made a mistake? (remember, memorize doesn’t answer this, again, people make mistakes in recall and when they write). Further, how many people can reliably recall things they memorized 30-40 years ago? (i.e. college for Summers).

    So there’s an issue here, but I think it’s more about knowing when to fact-check. And if anything, actually cuts against the obvious gotcha reaction.

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