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Collective Learning and Preservation of Knowledge

Collective Learning
Ways of Sharing Knowledge
Barriers to Knowledge Sharing
Favorable Conditions for Knowledge Sharing

Collective Learning

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 "collective learning."

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 learning.

Ways 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 stored books.

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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 results.

Places where knowledge is collected and society is tolerant -- even for a time -- have acted as magnets for those in search of learning.

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