the library at Alexandria, education, and the free availability of knowledge
Listening this past weekend to a fairly new radio station in our area, it kept playing a few times each day the song, Die Young, by Kesha.
You can call it up on YouTube to give it a listen. But, be warned – the song has a seductive beat that may capture you. One may find oneself humming or singing the song for a couple of days or more. Towards the end, there are some sexually suggestive lyrics that made me laugh.
It is permissible for middle-aged folks to listen to the music of the young, at least it is for those of us who are young at heart, and are not unduly rigid in our thinking.
Now, to our essay.
The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt was founded by Ptolemy I in about 295 B.C.
Here we quote from Wonders of the Ancient World, Antiquity’s Greatest Feats of Design and Engineering, by Justin Pollard, 2008, Quercus Publishing, London. From page 90:
“Yet despite – or maybe precisely because of – its fame, the history of the library and the museum at Alexandria is a troubled one. Ancient sources tell us that it held the largest collection of knowledge on earth and was probably both the first and the last place where everything ever known could be found. Such knowledge was often dangerous and throughout its history there are episodes of burning and destruction.”
An angry, Christian mob, during anti-pagan rioting in the year 391, desecrated the smaller remaining library (known as the Serapeum). Julius Caesar, had much earlier in 48 B.C. on a military campaign in Egypt, caused a fire that spread to the library and resulted in the loss of many thousands of ancient parchments. The extent of the destruction then appears to have been very serious. With the Christians, however, religious fervor overcame reason (as can also happen in a theocracy). Much knowledge – that had nothing to do with pagan religions – was thus lost. By the time the Muslim Arabs captured Alexandria in 642, the library was likely already in ruins.
Based on the history we do have that many of the leading mathematicians, physicians, geographers, architects, philosophers, etc. of the ancient world spent some time studying at Alexandria at various times, the knowledge contained in the Great Library was likely significant, and likely would have had practical benefits for Western man. As so much ancient knowledge was lost, we can only speculate (guess) as to how the course of Western civilization may have been different if the knowledge had survived.
If we are ever to sort out and constructively solve our problems in this very troubled world, we will need for knowledge to be freely available and will we need individuals capable of thinking independently, not beholden to any one school of thinking or ideological viewpoint.
Of course, the goal of education is to develop independent, critical thinking skills in students. If this is not at present the goal of education in the Western world, it ought to be. (Sadly, much evidence indicates that it is not.)
Those who are agenda or ideologically driven, and are zealous, often feel (rightly) threatened by the free flow of knowledge. Similarly, those who want to retain their power over others are wary of knowledge that may serve to undermine that power. As an example, there are those who ardently advocate for nuclear power generation, and ignore or downplay its inherent danger. (Nuclear power allows for no human error(s). Chernobyl (1986), and more recently, Fukushima, prove that.) A more poignant example is those who traffic in so-called “political correctness”. Many of these people are not open to considering real world facts that contradict their positions. Their minds are closed.
We need free access to knowledge, and we need to strive to be objective and rational in our pursuit of truth. Open, honest debate and the dissemination of knowledge should be encouraged. This is not easy for many people. There is a constant war, so to speak, inside their minds between emotion and reason. (Most biases seem to be emotionally driven.) Truths, when found, can be unpleasant for many to accept. But, why is that? I think it is difficult for many persons to accept and admit that they have been clinging to erroneous positions because over the years they have invested so much of themselves in their closely held positions. There is no doubt some emotion involved here. But, it is so very costly to cling to flawed positions or policies that do not help to make things better in this world. As the old military adage goes, “do not reinforce failure”.
What I have just written is no fairy tale. Many a person has invested much of themselves in misguided causes in recent decades. One recalls the idealistic youth of the 1920s and 1930s who ardently espoused communism.
Alas, we cannot change the whole world all at once. But, we can make the effort to change ourselves in positive, constructive ways, and thereby start a ripple effect among those around us.