Collective Learning and Preservation of Knowledge
Ways of Sharing
Favorable Conditions for Knowledge Sharing
Throughout human history, each
generation has built upon the work of those who came before.
People have passed on knowledge through spoken and written
language, both locally and globally. This process is called
As human societies came in contact through trade and conflict, they shared knowledge and
technologies across cultural barriers. As networks of
exchange spread, the pace of learning increased. The more we
learn and share what we know, the greater the rate of new
of Sharing Knowledge
Person-to-person, oral transmission of
knowledge was slow but effective. To help remember what was
said, ideas were put into poetry and song. For example,
orally transmitted ideas have come down to us today in
religious texts and epic poems from thousands of years ago.
The development of writing systems served as a catalyst to the exchanging of ideas. Scribes
patiently wrote things down on clay, stone, wood, bone, and
skin. Alphabets improved over time; instead of pictures,
they began using phonetic symbols.
More people could learn to read and write. With the
invention of papyrus, parchment, and then paper, ideas could
be stored in smaller spaces. Written words became more
portable and could be carried over land and sea. Books could
hold more text than scrolls. Then, libraries collected and
Today, we collect and share masses of knowledge through
computers and on plastic, such as CDs. Powered by
electricity and radio waves, digital ideas are so portable,
they can travel around the world -- and even into outer
space -- and back in seconds or minutes.
Barriers to Knowledge Sharing
Progress in human knowledge sounds
simple, like a hike straight up a mountainside. Yet, in
reality, it has not been so easy.
Throughout history, there have been setbacks in recording
and preserving knowledge; wars that devastate people and
institutions of learning; broken off connections in human
exchange networks; and barriers to sharing. These and other
factors have stopped, slowed, or prevented knowledge sharing
among people and across generations.
Two other key barriers include language difference and loss
of recorded knowledge.
People who cannot understand each other's language cannot communicate
much beyond the basics. As a result, translators must be found -- such
as merchants, diplomats, or scholars with foreign language skills --
and they are fairly rare. What's more, languages also get lost over
time, and have to be de-coded to unlock their message again. Islam
offered a common language and culture that bridged or linked Africa,
Asia, and Europe and allowed for free interchanging of ideas from all
of these regions.
loss of recorded information halts the spread of knowledge
across time and place. For example, books in libraries have
burned due to accidents, wars, and intentional destruction
of ideas. Also, books written on paper rot and decay. Even
today, librarians worry about deterioration of books less
than a century old.
What's more, modern technology may make recorded knowledge
even more fragile. If no one has a record player, vinyl
recordings of great music -- which have never been
transferred to CD -- cannot be heard again. Floppy disks had
become obsolete within only 10 years. And while CDs and
tapes are amazing ways of recording words, sounds, and
images, they too are fragile.
When a computer breaks down, data losses can be huge. Today,
we can record masses of information, but it can be lost
forever in the blink of an eye!
When we look at the transmission of ideas this way, it is
remarkable how much has survived. We have clues about how
much has been lost. But we also see times and places in
history when conditions favored the preservation of
knowledge and its transmission across cultural barriers.
Favorable Conditions for Knowledge Sharing
Expansion of empires has sometimes
resulted in great bursts of learning. Empires bring together
people of many languages and cultures under one government
-- often times a very wealthy one. Great leaders have paid
for books to be collected from all over the world, housed in
libraries, and translated. These rulers recognize that knowledge is the foundation of power.
Just as a nutritious meal gives the body energy, collection
of knowledge and translation stimulates learning and
sciences in these empires. This process is part of the
development of civilizations. The spread of religions has
also led to scholarship, travel, and exchange of ideas.
The search for religious wisdom has often led to study of nature, and
the collection and translation of books. Conversely, the search for
natural wisdom has led to the study of religion. Trade -- and even
warfare -- can spread ideas and result in the desire to gain access to
the best ideas that others have.
spread of religions has also motivated scholars to learn. It has
connected them with others who wish to share knowledge and technology.
Buddhist monks and pilgrims -- as well as Muslim, Christian, Jewish,
and Zoroastrian monks, missionaries, and travelers -- along the Silk
Roads carried knowledge and promoted literacy among their followers.
spread of Christianity into Africa and Europe stimulated reading,
writing, and study, as many early Christians wrote down their ideas.
The Jewish tradition of learning has been carried into the many lands
where they have settled and traveled for trade. Jews often became
fluent in language. Their cohesive society and common linguistic,
scholarly, and literary culture bridged far-flung regions and
encouraged their employment as merchants, diplomats, and administrators.
The spread of Islam across Africa, Asia, and southern Europe
greatly encouraged the spread of learning, through the
growth of cities, trade networks, and new technologies.
Muslim civilization inherited, developed, and passed on the
learning of all the cultures with which it came into
contact. The key to these achievements centered on
collection, preservation, and transformation of treasured
learning from many sources.
Cooperation among people of different languages, cultures,
and religions has taken place at numerous times in the past.
From time to time, scholars of different faiths have sat
down to listen to one another and work out ways of
translating their languages, patiently transcribing the
Places where knowledge is collected and society is tolerant
-- even for a time -- have acted as magnets for those in
search of learning.