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The End of Ignorance

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While rummaging around in some old books, I found a speech purported to have been delivered at the opening of Heidelberg University in or around 1500. The address stands on its own merits and I shall not comment further on it. Unfortunately, the speaker's name has been lost in antiquity. Here is the speech.

Honored Chancellor, Esteemed Doctors, Fellow Pedagogues, and Worthy Guests:

I thank you for your warm reception and the opportunity to address you. The subject of my talk, I believe, is of such import that I shall dispense with the customary humorous stories that are calculated to demonstrate my humility. In these days of rapid change in our gymnasia and universities, such luxuries are superfluous.

A number of months ago, word reached me of a most remarkable man. It was said he could reproduce whole pages of tomes without the mediation of a scribe. By means of cut metal dies containing the mirror image of our customary Gothic letters which he assembles to form words and sentences, this man has found it possible to "print''--to use his word--whole pages of literature at one time. So ridiculous and fraught with possibilities did I find this information that I sought out the man. Lo and behold, I found him in this very ancient and honored city. The man's name is Johann Gutenberg.

I visited him in his workshop and found him engaged in the actual printing of a page from the New Testament, and a handsome piece of work it was. Each page is made by a collection of his little metal letters arranged in the text of the original work and can be read only in a mirror. He calls this collection of letters a "plate.'' On it he places ink and then impresses the plate, by means of a heave press, onto sheets of paper. Upon lifting the plate from the paper it is seen that the ink has transferred itself from the plate to the paper. What would have taken our finest scribes days to do, Gutenberg has done in a few short moments.

If you are amazed to hear that something like this can be done, particularly in this age of advanced learning and engineering, imagine, wise gentlemen, my wonder and astonishment at seeing it with my own eyes! More wondrous still, however, is to consider the importance of this great invention to our scholars, young and old, across the land. Verily, it is worthy to consider what it will mean to our young pedagogues and the manner in which they shall execute their duties. Pedagogy, gentleman, shall be revolutionized.

Consider, scholars: By submitting our great books to the efficient process of Master Gutenberg, each of our pupils will be able to have for himself the wisdom and scholarship of our great teachers, past and present. No longer will each pupil be enslaved by the need to plod along at the pace of his slowest brother. He will be able to read and study at his own pace. Bright scholars will advance more rapidly and without boredom and tedium. The dull scholar will not be subjected to confusion and jibes for his inability to understand at the rate of his brighter fellows. For the first time in history, our scholars will be free to learn as fast as their intellects and desire can move them.

Consider further: Because each student will have at his convenience all that he needs of extant knowledge, he will not be tied to his tutors. No longer will our teachers be mere dispensers of knowledge, making of their pupils their servants as the only source of what pupils must know. Rather, our teachers will become implementers and facilitators of scholarship. Indeed, we can see the time when teachers qua teachers will not even be necessary. Is it not possible that any literate man can do what the teachers do when he has the bounty of Gutenberg's genius in his hand?

Who can foretell the effect this will have in the schools throughout the land? Surely the time is not distant when these volumes will be so easily and inexpensively produced that even the poorest among our pupils shall be able to afford them. Imagine, compeers, our serfs and peasants will no longer be bound by their ignorance to progenerate further serfs and peasants. Our poor and oppressed, having available to them the thoughts and knowledge of great scholars, will drink at the well of learning and rise by virtue of that learning to great positions in society. No longer will learning and cultivation be the possession of only the rich and well-born.

We observe our children, full of curiosity, anxious to know all sorts of things. In a thrice, they are older, bored, and disinterested in learning. What has intervened? Our mode of teaching. It has deadened them. Now, however, young scholars will study the great works themselves. Their curiosity will be nourished and grow, answers to their questions will lead to new questions and new studies. The joy of study and contemplation will generate more study and contemplation. Scholarship, and its consequent peace and joy, will rule our land.

What young scholar could resist the wisdom of Socrates and Plato, the insight of Sophocles and Aristophanes, the understanding of the physical world of Aristotle and Lucretius? What student could resist the imperatives of Epictetus or, more important, the great and timeless lessons of our Holy Testaments? Can we believe that, after having immersed themselves in such wealth, our children will continue to go to the taverns to listen to the lascivious and immoral talk of seafaring men, that they will continue to steal and shoot dice? Rather, they will aspire to a higher life, free of wagering, whoring, and the gluttony of drink.

Worthy scholars, I say to you that in another generation, if we fully avail ourselves of Gutenberg's great invention, we shall be a race of scholars. The horizon of popular learning will be extended and public taste will be infinitely raised. We are at the threshold of a new renaissance of scholarship in which poverty will no longer be a bar to learning, where each scholar will progress at his own pace, studying only that which gives him joy and satisfaction, where each scholar will become all he is capable of becoming, unencumbered by unresponsive schools and insensitive tutors. We are on the verge of an educational reform that will have pupils learning for themselves because they love what is presented and available to them. The switch and dunce cap and other manipulative devices will become reminders of a brutal past. We have only to accept this revolutionary invention and encourage its use to make our world a utopia. Not since writing itself has an invention had such possibilities to destroy ignorance and poverty as Gutenberg's machine.

Never in the history of mankind and of pedagogy have we had available to us a technology that so assured the improvement of mankind. We are indeed fortunate to have been born at so auspicious a time in the history of scholarship and education. We shall witness the abolition of ignorance and poverty of mind and body. What more could a scholar and teacher desire?

I thank you.

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