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Brad DeLong: The Ancient University and Distance Learning

CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES, UC BERKELEY: INEQUALITY: DIALOGUES FOR THE AMERICAS, FALL 2012: OCTOBER 15, 2012 http://www.clas.berkeley.edu/Events/series/inequalityfall2012/index.html

Thank you very much for inviting me. I am always happy to be here at the Center for Latin American Studies. I am even happier to be part of tho intercontinental dialogue, if only because the slow creation of--call it a global intellectual space--is what ought to be the twenty-first century mission of Universities like this one.

A thousand years ago, when the university starts in the West--it had started earlier elsewhere--the basic problem was a need for more well-educated people. Emperors needed judges. Popes needed theologians. Theologians and judges need to have and read books. But back in 1100 or so books were expensive.

Come 1100 or so, when the University of Bologna is founded, your average book requires about six months of skilled-monk labor-time to produce--preparing the parchment, preparing the ink, writing out the book, illustrating the manuscript, binding and covering it, and so forth. It was then much much cheaper to get all the budding judges and theologians together in a room in Bologna, or Naples, or Paris, or Oxford--and have somebody read them from the single copy of the book that existed while they took their notes. It would have been prohibitively expensive to create and distribute, to people distributed all over western Europe, each their own copy of one of these hideously expensive books.

Well, books are much cheaper now. But we still have universities. They are places where people can come together and easily talk to each other about important intellectual issues and principles.

We could have a better world if we could generalize this to the globe. If the entire globe could become one global university, rather than a collation of small individual intellectual hotspots tenuously linked, and with the rest of the world glowing less brightly with intellectual light. Today too small a relative proportion of the world’s population has full intellectual access. Fixing that is the business we’re in for the twenty-first century. Fixing that is the business that this particular technology experiment is in aid of.

And with that commercial for interdisciplinary distance learning and engagement, let me note that I have already used up a third of my introductory-comment time.