Monday, January 24, 2011

Learning & Writing in History

Here is my timeline, which includes what I took from the history of writing and the changes to society from Ong, plus the rough history of distance learning.

I still feel like I’m missing analysis (a feeling that’s exacerbated when I look at everyone else’s work), but I don’t see how it would fit with the visual. I believe I incorporated the needed material on the timeline itself, rather than requiring a separate table. This isn’t sitting comfortably with me, but I’m rolling with it, nonetheless.

In a review, Irene mentioned (very accurately) that it has a large gap in it. Ong himself said something along the lines of, “We invented writing, but it took us forever to do anything with it.” I was struck by just that as I pieced together the moments I saw him emphasizing through the text. Then as I added the dates for learning, I was blown away by the exponential increase in the rapidity of change and progress. It shows clearly in a bird’s-eye view of the timeline, but here’s the essence:

We invent writing. 2,000 years later, we decide to make letters. Another 500 years, and we think to add vowels. It took 500 years for Socrates to say that was going to kill learning.

In 1454, Gutenberg works his magic; in under 300 years, we have a correspondence course. In under 200 years, there’s a distance-learning university degree. The Internet comes along 120 years later, and it takes roughly 25 years for online courses to hit the 3 million single-semester enrollments mark.

It took 500 years to think up A, E, I, O, and U. It takes 5% of that time to go from Internet-as-twinkle-in-Al-Gore’s-eye to population-of-Chicago-taking-online-courses. I read it, I see it on the timeline, and I still can’t wrap my head around it.



  1. You make me sound like a meanie! :)

    Actually, yes, I noticed the exact same thing in my own timeline -- that there is a long gap in events before things really start hitting the ground. I think you've hit the nail on the head about why. This timeline exercise was helpful in demonstrating the differences between eras.

  2. Chris, ditto, noticed the same pattern. I found that reading Illich, who is self-consciously indebted to Ong and seeks to expand his argument, helped fill in some of the gaps, particularly through the middle ages and the medieval period.

    He incorporates important developments in terms of the materials of writing and reading as well as the organization of the page that prepare the mental architecture of the reader for the possibilities of the printing press.

    I suspect as we press in we'll discover many details that don't make into more general histories of writing/reading/text, etc. For example, I stumbled onto "Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading," 500 page book published in 2000 focused with laser-like intensity on that one development that hardly gets a mention in most histories.

    I'm eager to where your research leads you. It would seem interesting to also explore the evolutions in assumptions about the purpose/end of education that make possible the idea of distance education in the first place. In other words, it seems like the idea of distance education makes sense with certain philosophies of education/knowledge and not others. I suspect there is an interesting story to tell there.

  3. Thanks Mike S. for the citation of that book -- and that's precisely the goal here -- to find areas where no one has investigated thoroughly (I'm always surprised how much ground is just assumed).

    Illich seems have a much more tragic sensibility and anarchistic ideology than Ong ...

  4. I think that is fair to say, particularly in terms of the tragic sensibility. I'm a little less confident in the anarchistic ideology, I would want to think a little more on that and have more of his writing to examine, but I see how that could work.