History Lessons

Here are my slides from the Dean’s Lecture at University of Saskatchawan on Thursday. Had a great crowd out for the talk and a great time giving it. Regular readers will recognize material in the second half of the talk, but the first half contains a photo-only version of the Trucker Tale followed by some historical analysis ranging from roughly 1000-1600.

This new historical analysis looks at lessons learned by the early church in its struggle to control access to the scriptures. I’m still building and expanding this argument, but I think there are many useful things for publishers (who try to control access to research) and university faculty (who try to control access to teaching and learning materials) to learn from the church’s encounter with the people’s demand for information and a new technology called the printing press. Comments welcome.

1 thought on “History Lessons”

  1. David,
    I’m in agreement with the general thrust of this piece. I’m a historian by training, though. And from that perspective I believe a fuller examination of the history would provide some support to your argument, but also raise some questions about how likely we are to get to an open future.

    So, for example, making the Bible accessible to the literate was only one of many trends that “disaggregated” Catholic control of doctrine. Another was the emerging enlightenment, in which the authority of religion as a whole came under question, to be replaced by scientific rationality. Equally as important was religious syncretism, both in Europe and in the New World. There, regular, mostly illiterate people, mixed Catholicism with traditional and folk beliefs to create a hybrid doctine. So even without the accessibility of the Bible, it is likely that religious belief would have become more “open.”

    Another key point is that disaggregation was almost immediately followed by re-aggregation. By this I mean two things: first, that Catholicism quickly regained its influence around the world, following as it did the expansion of European empires. So even though Catholic doctrine was less under the control of the Church, Catholicism itself retained or expanded its power. An important part of that expansion came through education (here I’m thinking of the Jesuits). Second, those who fled Catholicism established religious organizations that filled most of the same roles as Catholicism. Sometimes those organizations were as dogmatic and illiberal as Catholicism, even though members had more access to information. (Of course others led to greater freedom.)

    For me, these further historical examples suggest that the open learning movement needs to grapple with the human tendency to re-create organizations that mimic those that have been weakened. In other words, it seems likely that even when higher ed’s key assumptions are seen to be false, that something like higher ed will remain–a Protestant version of what is now a Catholic system to carry on the analogy.

    It also seems likely that it will take a great deal more than open access to information to bring about the broader changes to education that open learning seeks. Again and again through time liberals have imagined that access to information leads to greater freedom and rationality (this is the Enlightenment argument). But there are plenty of counter-examples, including the emergence of Protestantism and religious syncretisms in Catholicism that suggest that the future of learning will be much messier than some might hope.

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