The Scholarly Omnivore: Knowledge in the 21st Century

Note: This is a re-post of a post written for my old blog back in December 2004 (yes, nearly 13 years ago). At that point, I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History, which I would highly recommend. The below is me riffing on some stuff that I’d read (pp. 71ff in the hardback edition), presented in its original un-edited glory (except for adding the sweet woodcut).

I thought of this post because of conversations with colleagues on the topic of what makes a “good” biblical scholar. My answer to that question has grown since then, basically, to be a “good” scholar requires mastery of data in all media and format, but the below shows where I started with these ideas.

Remember: This was written nearly 13 years ago. I use the term CDRom. You’ve been warned.

The Scholarly Omnivore: Knowledge in the 21st Century

No, it’s not a proposed title for an SBL paper.

As mentioned earlier, I’m reading The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I’m still quite early in the book; the stage for the reformation is still being set. MacCulloch is in western Europe, around 1500. He has just started to talk about the printing press, so just after the stage of incunabula and at the beginnings of wider-spread availability of printed books. He’s reviewed the introduction of the Bible in local languages. Then he writes:

The effect of printing was more profound than simply making more books available more quickly. It affected western Europe’s assumptions about knowledge and originality of thought. Before the invention of printing, a major part of a scholar’s life was spent copying existing texts by hand, simply in order to have access to them. Now that printed copies of texts were increasingly available, there was less copying to do, and so there was more time to devote to thinking for oneself. That had implications for scholarly respect for what previous generations had said. Copying had been such a significant activity that in previous centuries of Christian culture, it had been given a privileged place against original thought. (MacCulloch, 71).

I’d never before considered that the printing press had this sort of effect — changing the scholar’s product from copying/preservation of previously written material to assimilating the old with the new and actually promoting original thought. (Side thought: Maybe Calvin was so infused with Augustine because he’d spent years copying his stuff before the wider availability of such works?)

In the next page or so, MacCulloch goes on to discuss how all of a sudden, reading became important because, well, folks had time to read and folks had material to read. Scholars had less need to copy material and started actually reading and thinking about things. Folks who only knew how to read but didn’t know how to write (an apparently significant portion of the expanding book-buying population according to MacCulloch) had something to hold their attention.

The resulting change in knowledge acquisition is mindboggling, at least to me. Knowledge acquisition, previous to Gutenberg, it seems, invovled hoarding copies of manuscripts for one’s own purposes. Now, all of a sudden, these important manuscripts were much easier to acquire. So people now start to really pay attention to what is written. They, in essence, learn how to read. They learn how to comprehend. Scholars no longer need to be obsessed with preservation of valuable resources, they can actually study them.

Can you imagine some of the converastions between the older scholars and the younger ones? Can you hear the older scholars imploring their students regarding the value of hand-copying Augustine or Aquinas, because that’s the only way you can really achieve intimate familiarity with their work? And can you imagine the younger student’s responses? How they think they can simply read the work and — without the pain and carpal-tunnel-inducing act of copying it — refer to it later, because they have a printed copy?

Talk about revolution. So here comes the obvious question: If MacCulloch is right about this shift, is it possible that we’re at a similar point today?

I’ve said in other circles that I think we’re still in an incunabula-like period when it comes to electronic resources. Publishers are still figuring out how to handle printed material in an electronic form, be it on CDRom or on the web or wherever. Publishers are getting better (we’ve come a long way in the past 15 years) but we’ve still got some issues to resolve. The same is true with scholars in their use of these resources. This act of actually reading and becoming familiar with a text, the author, and the argument is an important thing. The understanding and synthesis gained from a solid, thorough reading of a timely or important book is needed to move the general state of knowledge further along. It used to be easy. You had a book, you read it. You sucked it down, you wrote notes, you created bibliographies on topics, you read more, you went to a few conferences and debated with others about it, and you generally examined anything available in the library on the topic you could get your hands on. Then, maybe, you wrote something. Chances are it would be of value.

But here come these young upstarts, with their electronic editions of books, or their web sites, their search engines, or their (horrors!) blogs, pushing the envelope. “No need to really read something”, some might say. “You can always search to find what you’re looking for; that stuff you think you remember from somewhere.” Corpora are instantly searched, and results are reviewed; hopefully in some semblence of context.

Extremes of such attitudes (both of the younger and older parties) would be wrong, of course. The only thing that is clear to me is that the one who straddles both eras — the one who is able to understand how to acquire knowledge (not simply a mass of information, but knowledge) using both sorts of systems is the one with the most to gain in times like these.

I’m guessing that in the early 1500’s, at the time of the introduction of the printing press, the middle-aged scholar who’d spent most of his scholarly life poring over manuscripts, copying them diligently, and slowly building his knowledge was in the best place of all. He had already gone through the pain of learning his stuff and chances are he knew it quite well. If he’d been diligent, he had a solid base from which to build. The newer guys still had to build their base of knowledge (though they might do it more quickly); the older scholars could have very well been stuck in their older copyists’ ways, unable to cope with having to assimilate some new book without needing to physically write it themselves. The middle-aged scholar, however, could take advantage of the press and start to write his own stuff, with an immediate and relatively widespread audience. He had the basis, he had the knowledge, he just needed to grasp the opportunity in order to make his mark.

I think something similar holds today. The answer isn’t books. The answer isn’t the web. The answer isn’t databases. The answer isn’t CDRom. The answer is to be a scholarly omnivore: dive into it all and use it all in the pursuit of knowledge. The one-dimensional approach is doomed to failure because that one dimension, by itself, will not survive. The one who will prosper is the one with several tools in his toolbox that he is skilled in using. The one who spends time in printed books, devouring them and working hard to retain what has been read. The one who understands basic search syntax and can find stuff either with Google or with other CDRom-based digital libraries, but knows the value and weight to give such results because he’s actually somewhat familiar with the material. The one who spends time reading journals and email lists, understanding the information being passed on by very knowledgable folks. In short, the one who plows ahead, assimilating and applying what he’s reading and what he knows to solve the difficult problems in front of him in the field he’s chosen.

This person is in the best spot during such periods of change, no matter what sort of changes happen, because he can cope and still be productive. He won’t be stuck, flustered and distraught because he’ll be able to grok the next thing that comes along and stick the tool in his toolbox for later use.

Of course, all of this is futile if our eyes aren’t on the One who compels us. It may be satisfying at some level, but if the ultimate basis for action isn’t the glorification of our Lord and Savior, then re-evaluation is needed. At times like these, I’m reminded of an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.


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