I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 52 July/August 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Main Feature - Knowledge Digest


Greek Learning:
A Story of Knowledge Diffusion

Bob Hodgson, Zernike UK

Editor's Note - Bob commented that he first used this story in 1992 when he was the after dinner speaker at an IC2 - Institute of Creativity and Capital, University of Texas, Austin - conference in San Fransisco. It has been widely told many times, and by Bob at a recent conference in Bilbao.

This story relates to how the 'rediscovery' of ancient Greek learning contributed to the revolutionary period known in Europe as the Renaissance. Greek mathematics - including Pythagorean and Euclidean - was lost to Europe when Greece was overrun by the expanding Byzantine Empire. Fortunately, a group of Nestorian Christian scholars migrated to Gondisapur close to Baghdad, which at that time (eighth century) was a thriving centre of Islamic learning. The Greek texts were translated into Arabic and the ideas were nurtured and developed through the centuries by Islamic scholars who followed the best open and inquisitive academic traditions.

In time this knowledge passed to the Arabic academic centres of southern Spain - Toledo and Cordova - where in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries radical (heretic) north European scholars such as Adelard of Bath and Robert the Scot came to study and translated the Arabic into Latin. Gradually these Latin texts found their way into north European universities and became the foundation for a renaissance of scientific inquiry that has led to many of the advances that underpin modern technological development.

Several reflections on this tale are worthwhile:

  1. None of these historic cities, nor the cultures in which they were based, are currently world leaders as modern centres of learning or of technology-led growth. But a science park is being established in Athens, and science and technology parks do exist in southern Spain.
  2. Sophisticated and culturally rich civilisations coexisted concurrently but independently during the period of the journey of Greek mathematics. These included China, India, and some of the civilizations of South America, but no equivalents existed in northern Europe or North America. A major difference today is the power and immediacy of international telecommunications, which can potentially merge cultures of the world into one accessible whole.
  3. The role of population movements in spreading ideas is crucial and the stimulus that can be gained from the transfer of people can have long term effects. It is worth comparing the role and effect of higher education in the United States and the large proportion of non-American participants, some of whom stay, whereas others return home with their new knowledge.
  4. The role of culture is dominant in nurturing or repressing academic inquiry. The shifting nature of culture can change from supportive of open inquiry to repressive, and back again over centuries.
  5. International language plays a key role in storing and disseminating knowledge, as it did in the early days of Greek, Arabic, and Latin and does now principally with English. The task of scholars is to facilitate communications between nations.

Email: Bob Hedgeson, Zernike UK

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I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News is a joint publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited and ENTOVATION International Limited - providers of trends analysis, strategic advice and workshops on knowledge management and knowledge innovation®

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