Monday, 9 February 2015

Illich and Hugh of St Victor on Reading, Wealth and Learning

Hugh of St Victor's Didascalicon de studio legendi contains one of the earliest (c. 1128) and most comprehensive discourses on learning and reading. One of Ivan Illich's last books "In the Vineyard of the Text" presents a penetrating study of it, and it seems that for Illich, the themes of education, Christianity, technology come together both in Hugh's original text, and most clearly in Illich's commentary.

Illich indicates that he believes that the era of 'bookishness' which was the hallmark of the early Universities (as it had been the monasteries) is now at an end. He argues "The screen, the medium and communication have surreptitiously replaces the page, letters, and reading." I'm not sure I agree with him here. I think the era of bookishness is still with us (good University libraries are still wonderful places), but expansion of education has exploited the functional equivalence of the screen for the book, and created Universities and libraries which legitimately carry the name, but are fundamentally different in quality. Illich says "Since the book has ceased to be the ultimate reason for their existence, educational institutions have proliferated". Yes, they have, and their presence is no longer dependent of having a proper library: online journal subscriptions and strategically-filled shelves with high demand books tailored to courses will suffice. Yet reading the internet is not the same as reading a library.

The proliferation of education is a complex phenomenon. It is almost certainly driven by these deep confusions about the 'objects' associated with learning, and the possibilities for creating simulacra. But those with access to the real thing: the Bodleian, etc, remain among the most privileged echelons of society. Bookishness is preserved for the few, augmented by screens - but at a respectable distance.

So what if you're not from the upper echelons of society? Hugh has a passage in the preface to the Didascalicon noting that:
"for others of them, lack of family wealth and a slender income decrease the opportunity of learning. Yet, we decidedly do not believe that these can be altogether excused by this circumstance, since we see many laboring in hunger, thirst, and nakedness attain to the fruit of knowledge. And still it is one thing when one is not able, or to speak more truly, when one is not easily able to learn, and another when one is able but unwilling to learn. Just as it is more glorious to lay hold upon wisdom by sheer exertion, even though no resources support one, so, to be sure, it is more loathsome to enjoy natural ability and to have plenty of wealth, yet to grow dull in idleness."
Perhaps there's an indictment of so much that stands (but misrepresents) scholarly activity in modern universities - I can't imagine much of the REF meeting with Hugh's approval.  However, it does beg the question as to what is actually meant by the "fruit of knowledge". Illich points out that for Hugh, scholarship and reading bring something approximating to feelings of friendship.
"When Hugh reads, he experiences the restoration of that light of what sin has deprived us. His pilgrimage at dawn through the vineyard of the page leads toward paradise, which he conceives as a garden. The words that he plucks from the trellis of the lines are a foretaste and a promise of the sweetness that is to come. For both the hoped-for fulfillment and the means to reach it, Hugh's ultimate metaphor is friendship. Est philosophia amor et studium et amicatia quodammodo sapientiae: "Love and pursuit and something akin to the friendship of wisdom"
C.S. Lewis says that we "read to know we are not alone". We might not all have access to the Bodleian. But reading each other - which is an activity that can take place anywhere - is just as important as reading books in a University. Even in our least prestigious institutions, there is friendship among diverse people. It unfortunate that such institutions feel compelled to reproduce parts of more esteemed institutions as fetish objects at the expense of the diversity and love which sits under their noses.

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