How we learn and what is lost

Commentary by Pearl Lorentzen

“We have inherited great riches from our distant ancestors, but the reality is that huge swathes of ancient culture were lost on the long journey to the twenty-first century.” – Violet Moller in The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found.

The world is currently well into the digital age. There is more information at our fingertips (or voice commands) than at any other time in history, but how accurate is that information and how do we trust it?

I have always been fascinated with history. Recently, I’ve started reading about the transmission of knowledge over time. Both in written form and in oral cultures such as Indigenous knowledge handed down by elders.

In The Map of Knowledge, Moller traces the preservation and translation of three important classical texts on medicine, math, and astronomy. These were originally written in Greek in Alexandria in North Africa, then translated into Syriac and Arabic in the Middle East and Spain. These Western ideas also met ideas from India such as zero, and 1 to 9. Before this all math was done with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV etc.). These were then translated into Latin and formed the basis of the Enlightenment.

Moller is investigating a gap in the historic record in Europe and the European colonized world. The impact of Islamic cities on the transmission of ancient ideas.

One example in the book is in the ninth century (800s), three brothers known as the Banu Masu brothers invented the crankshaft by modifying a Roman design. It reached Europe in the 14th Century (1300s). It is still used in engines today.

I’m currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s a botanist, who is a member of an Indigenous community originally from the Great Lakes area, but forcibly moved to Oklahoma. The intersection of her various identities moves the work forward.

Moller says the seven cities in the Middle East and Europe “all shared the conditions that allowed scholarship to flourish: political stability, a regular supply of funding and of texts, a pool of talented, interested individuals and, most striking of all, an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusivity toward different nationalities and religions. This collaboration is one of the most important factors in the development of science.”

This description sounds like the modern freedoms we have in Canada. The challenge is to harness and connect “talented, interested individuals.” Not that people in Slave Lake, High Prairie, and Peace River need to change the world, but we have a lot of freedom and one thing I’ve learned is that most people have some talents and something that they are interested in and passionate about.

Asking people about these interests is how I avoid the agony of small talk. People become more interesting when they talk about their interests, even sports. I usually learn something, and depending how trustworthy the speaker is I may even accept that information as knowledge. Or at the least fact check it.

As people are getting out and about more, I encourage all of us, myself included, to learn new things and talk to people about what they are interested in. Their passion may be contagious.

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