I have, for the last few months, been living off the generosity of my brother and father. More than the financial help and the physical security of having a place to stay, which are much appreciated, I have enjoyed being part of a family in a tangible way again. Among the many responsibilities/benefits of this has been occasionally helping my nephew with his homework. While doing so last night I came across something that bothered me somewhat.
He asked me to look over a paragraph he was expected to write for social studies. It was to be from the point of view of an Ancient Greek citizen walking through the marketplace in Athens. His alter ego speaks of buying all manner of items but one in particular stood out and was the cause of my concern: a book. I politely corrected him and told him there were no books in Ancient Greece so a citizen would not be buying them. He corrected me and showed me in his text where it describes people buying books in the marketplace.
It has been a long time since I have had to study the ancient world, still that seemed wrong to me. To my knowledge books as we know them did not appear for another thousand years after the period he is learning about, at least not in that part of the world. I wanted to know if I could be wrong about my assumption so I did a little quick research.
Books as we would recognize them, multiple leaves of paper bound with glue in some variety of cover, would indeed not appear until the 7th century CE (that’s AD to all you Baby Boomer or older folks out there.) That is at the beginning of, but definitely inside the Dark Ages. Ancient Rome had a variation, wood panels bound with wrings but even that would not come along until the fist century CE.
Still that alone is not the worst of it. One could suppose that they were using “book” as a catch all for any permanent record of literature, including the scrolls that were used in Ancient Greece. Indeed some scholarly articles do this, so it is not a particularly important point of contention, even if it bothers me. What is more troubling is the idea that these students are being taught that books were available for mass consumption and trade. At the time books were not sold in the market, but rather in the library, and even then most citizens did not have a strong interest in ever acquiring them. To put things in a context we can understand in modern terms, buying a scroll would be like buying a server to put your businesses web site and other computing needs on. They were available, but not something most people had a need or desire to do.
I know this may seem trivial on the face of it. I admit I have been known to nitpick over details and wax academic at the drop of a hat. This is not, however, insignificant, not when you consider this is being taught as fact to children. What happens years later when these facts are turned on their head? Do they merely accept the new facts, or do they question any fact they are taught? Either answer is no good. They will either blindly believe what they are told, or be so overwhelmed by skepticism that they will treat all facts as matters of opinion.
Years ago Michael Kinsley wrote an excellent column about the latter phenomena: The Intellectual Free Lunch (I recommend paying for the subscription to The New Yorker to read the whole article, even if it is the only thing you read from them.) We see in our society, still almost twenty years later, a tendency to treat empirical matters as if they were fluid. They are not. The amount of words, in English, in this blog post is static. The amount of money in our government spent last year on welfare is fixed and not subject itself to debate. Whether that amount is too high, too low, or just right, is. However one cannot come to an informed opinion of about whether or not it is too high without knowing what that number is. We are training people to ignore that fact.
I would like to think this is accidental, but I sometimes wonder. I wonder if it is convenient for those in power to have the electorate unable to form an actual informed opinion. I don’t like thinking like that, but I also don’t like ignoring the possibility. I see factual errors in a sixth grade history book and I have to worry. I hear people say “well that’s my opinion” about the number of casualties in a conflict. I see rigorous scientific research challenged in the areas of evolution and anthropogenic climate change as being “just a theory” while the speaker remains unaware of the meaning of the word “theory.” I look at all this and wonder if this has been deliberately done to us. I see this and I wonder if that would be worse than the idea of our being inherently so willfully ignorant.