井底之蛙

6/26/2006

The World before Google

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:26 pm

One of the reasons I write this blog is to preserve things, mostly for myself. I often come across something that might be useful to teach with later, and blogging about things forces me to think things out a bit before I file them away. If you are the type of person that tends to procrastinate about thinking about things having a blog forces you to think a bit more promptly.

The other nice thing about blogging is that once you blog something you always know where it is. No hunting around your hard drive or god forbid filing cabinet to find a quote or an idea, just Google it up. Its like having an artificial brain.1

Being able to use technology to substitute for your lack of memory is a fairly new thing. Memory used to be the way people retained knowledge. Two examples. In Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters there are a number of George Orwell’s bits of literary criticism. At a number of points he quotes a bit of verse and says “I’m quoting from memory.” When I first read this I thought Orwell was a show-off. Eventually I figured out that he was being apologetic. All of these were fairly standard poems that any Englishman of his class would have memorized in school, and he was not bragging, but rather apologizing for being too lazy to go check the quotes. (He was almost always right.) I once saw Anthony Grafton give a paper and he told us that Italian Renaissance writers often misquoted the classics in their writing, as a way of asserting that they were working from memory, rather than looking up quotes like a bunch of clerks. (Of course these misquotes never involved mistakes in Latin grammar.) To be an educated person was to have memorized a lot of stuff. Part of this I suppose was the cost of books and the lack of standardized editions. If you found something worth knowing it behooved you to memorize it or, in Europe, to write it down in your commonplace book. Chances were you would never see it again. Modern scholarship tends to be built around remembering where to find stuff, rather than collecting it like a jackdaw.

Chinese literati also paid a lot of attention to memory. Memorizing the classics was part of becoming educated, and memorizing other things was valuable for lots of reasons. One of them is that education is a portable. In his Family Instructions Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.), tells his children that

Those who have learning or skill can settle down anywhere. In these disordered times I have seen many captives who, though lowbred for a hundred generations, have become teachers through knowledge and study of the Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. Others, thought they had the heritage of nobility for a thousand years, were nothing but farmers or grooms, because they were unable to read and write. Seeing such conditions, how can you not exert yourselves? Whoever can keep steadily at work on a few hundred volumes will, in the end, never remain a common person. p.54

Yen lived in a society where being literate would mark you out even among aristocrats. He himself managed to serve under four dynasties, which is proof that you can get a long way by being educated. Part of the purpose of education is transforming yourself into a particular type of person (the Confucian self-cultivation thing) but part of it also is knowing enough stuff, and knowing it well enough, that you can use it in your conversation and writing. The ability to interact well with other aristocrats is pretty important. I think when he says you can go a long way by knowing Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. he does not just mean you should have read them. (They are pretty basic texts.) What he means is that you need to know the text, the commentaries, and the textual traditions associated with them well enough that you can hold your own. You need to become thoroughly conversant with things, and stay that way from constant review.

When a man is young his mind is concentrated and sharp; after maturity his thoughts and reasoning powers are scattered and slow. For this reason we should be educated early, so as not to loose the opportunity. When I was seven years old I could recited the fu poem describing the Ling-kuang palace, and by reviewing once every ten years I can still recall it. After my twentieth year, if I put aside for a month the classics I had read, then my memory was vague or confused. p.61

In fact the thing that he seems to be most worried about is that his family will embarrass themselves by committing a solecism.

Old literary allusions cited in speeches and writings should be personally checked, not based on hearsay. The so-called scholar-officials in the villages south of the Yangtze are usually not well educated, but as they are ashamed to appear mean and uncultured, they write what they know from hearsay evidence, using ill-fitted classical terms to embellish their sentences.p.77

He then goes on to list a bunch of silly mistakes caused by “learning by ear.” Access to texts, i.e. wealth and connections is part of getting to be properly educated. There more to learning than money, however. Lots of things are not clearly explained in texts. Classical allusions are not self-evident. Someone has to teach them to you, and you have to remember them. Place-names, proper pronunciations, and the origins of words, you need to know all of these. What if you mistook the 荇菜 plant for the 苋菜 plant? Or thought that a hill associated with an ancient hero was just a regular hill? Is it proper to refer to the owner of a puppet show as ‘Kuo the Bald?’ To us these sorts of questions don’t matter much because we see names as arbitrary. Yen is obsessed with questions of philology and phonology because he thinks understanding words will help us to understand the universe.Knowledge is not just a bunch of facts you can google up, or owning a bunch of reference books you can look for things it. It is becoming a type of person, and this is something that you can only do in your head.



1 Of course one drawback is that everyone and their brother can look into your brain

Powered by WordPress