What happens when societies stop learning?
The short answer: things go horribly wrong.
The long answer: things go really horribly wrong.
Throughout history, the richest, most powerful societies on earth have always been the most educated, inventive, and imaginative. Two thousand years ago, it was the Roman Empire, which ruled an area half the size of the continental US and gave the world Virgil, aqueducts, and the calendar. One thousand years ago, it was China under the Song dynasty. Administering a similar-sized area, the Song bequeathed to us printing presses, paper money, and some of the finest landscape paintings of all time.
In the 19th century, it was the British Empire, which bestrode the world like a colossus and produced giants like Dickens, Darwin, and Kipling; in the 20th it was the USA, which picked up as many Nobel Prizes as the next five countries combined.
But who will it be in the twenty-first century?
That, I think, will depend on who keeps on learning and who stops.
In one sense, no society ever stops learning. Everywhere in the world, children are born knowing nothing beyond what their instincts tell them, and learn as they grow up. Whether they are hunting game in the Kalahari Desert or sitting in a prep school in Switzerland, they are learning all the time.
That may sound like a trivial point, but it isn’t. Everywhere on earth, we teach our children to ask questions that seem important to us. There will always be people asking questions, and there will always be learning going on. What leads to disaster is when people stop asking new questions, because they think they already have the important answers.
This has happened over and over again in history.
Look, for instance, at what happened in Europe 400 years ago. For centuries, the centers of learning and creativity had been in the south, especially in Italy. Italians invented perspective in painting, rediscovered the classics, and opened the first modern banks. Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Michelangelo carved his David, and Leonardo unlocked the secrets of anatomy. The streets of Florence were crowded with genius and the future seemed bright.
Scholars kept asking new questions, following their inquiries wherever they led. Did the sun really rotate around the earth—or the other way round? If the earth really went round the sun, why did the Bible say the opposite? Could it be that the Bible was wrong?
Italian intellectuals lived in societies where rulers held their power because people accepted that God wanted them to, and in such a setting, these ideas were profoundly subversive. The new thinkers were squeezed. Galileo, faced with jail, agreed with the inquisitors that the earth did not move and swore not to teach his heretical views.
Over the next hundred years, fewer and fewer Italians asked new questions, and the centers of scholarship shifted from southern to northern Europe (above all Britain, France, and the Netherlands) and across the Atlantic, to the colonies in North America. These countries too had powerful people who worried about new questions and too much learning—especially when thinkers like Voltaire and John Locke applied scientific methods to the way society itself worked.
But northern Europe and its North American colonies also had powerful people who were open to all the ideas and possibilities bubbling up out of the dynamic trading economy of the Atlantic Ocean. So what if Isaac Newton has peculiar ideas, they asked themselves, so long as he can explain how the stars move in the sky, allowing us to navigate better?
By 1700, the shift was complete. Learning in Italy stagnated; in science, standards of living, and arguably the arts too, southern Europe fell further and further behind the north. Reading recent headlines, we might well wonder whether it has yet hit bottom.
The most revealing example, though, must be China in the same few centuries. Through the period that Europeans call the Middle Ages, China was far and away the most educated, wealthiest, and creative country in the world. Long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic, huge Chinese ships were sailing to Africa and Arabia. Millions of books were circulating, and most could be bought for a few copper coins in even the humblest country market.
After 1400, though, China moved down the same path that Italy would follow in Galileo’s day, shutting the door on new and disturbing questions in the belief that it already had all the important answers.
What makes the Chinese case so interesting is that by 1600, as this process was going into high gear, Europeans began showing up in Beijing with their new scientific ideas. The Europeans dazzled Chinese intellectuals with their telescopes, cannons, eyeglasses, and arithmetic. Even Kangxi, China’s emperor—a busy man, who led his own armies in battle and fathered 56 children—listened to what they had to say. He learned European geometry and mechanics, and even picked up the harpsichord.
But the great problem in 17th-century China was not that any one man did or didn’t welcome new kinds of learning; it was that the Chinese educational system as a whole no longer had room for the kinds of questions the Europeans were asking.
China’s government needed an educated, literate elite to staff the civil service that kept the empire working. After winning a terrible civil war to establish its power, the new ruling dynasty needed to work hard to win the loyalty of the scholar-bureaucrats. The government wanted the men who ran the academies to keep on producing reliable administrators, so it paid huge salaries to scholars who agreed not to rock the boat.
In the short term, this worked. The academics fell into line. But in the long term, it was disastrous. Eager to shut out challengers, scholarly insiders pressured the emperor to get rid of the Europeans; and in 1704 he banned them from teaching.
China had missed its chance. It fell further and further behind, until in 1840 British ships shot their way up the Yangzi River and began a century of Chinese humiliation.
So what does all this history teach us?
Two things, I think.
First, when a society is open to the rest of the world and tolerant of different opinions, it will keep asking new questions, keep on learning, and keep on prospering.
But when a society is satisfied that it already has the answers, it will sacrifice new questions on the altar of expedience. Such a society will not keep on learning, and will not keep on prospering.
It is up to us to decide which kind of society we want to be.