Learning via videos instead of text is a forgotten old

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Euclid or Archimedes giving oral instruction to students. (“School of Athens”, Raphael.)

The modern man does not read books, and does not commit to reading anything longer than a single paragraph. Instead, he reads titles or “tweets”, watches YouTube videos, and scrolls through meme images on Twitter. He also listens to podcasts and audiobooks while driving. Is this because he has a low attention span, or is it because rich media is more effective? After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Let me answer this question by looking at history. Often, what is new is the forgotten old, and this is certainly so in this case. While we may think that this way of learning is a result of advances in technology and the Internet, learning by watching and listening — and not by writing and reading — is an ancient practice.

For thousands of years, people passed knowledge orally because they haven’t yet discovered writing. But, when writing finally became accessible to a prehistoric and early historic man, he hesitated to use it as the method of teaching and communication. Historian Will Durant writes in his book “Our Oriental Heritage,”

Doubtless the invention of writing was met with holy opposition, as something calculated to undermine morals and the race. An Egyptian legend relates that when the god Thoth revealed this discovery of the art of writing to King Thamos, the good King denounced it as an enemy of civilization. “Children and young people,” protested the monarch, “who had hitherto been forced to apply themselves diligently to learn and retain whatever was taught them, would cease to apply themselves, and would neglect to exercise their memories.”

Durant also notes that some African tribes of his present day (circa 1940) still opted out from writing,

Many tribes have learned to write by imitating their civilized exploiters; but some, as in northern Africa, have remained letterless despite five thousand years of intermittent contact with literate nations. . . . Their memories were all the stronger for having no written aids; they learned and retained, and passed on to their children by recitation, whatever seemed necessary in the way of historical record and cultural transmission.

We do not have to go that far back into history. Many religious texts where first written down only after 300 BC. Hindu epic poems such as Mahabharata and Ramayana are each many times longer than the Illiad and Odyssey combined, and were passed orally for hundreds of years. The Jewish Talmud, which is a book of Judaic code of law, was written in complete form only in the 14-th century AD. It has 2711 double-sided pages, and takes eight years to learn if one reads one side of each page per day. Imagine, for a thousand years all of it was taught orally! (Rabbis hesitated writing it down, fearing it would compete with main religious book, the Hebrew Bible).

I will summarize. Throughout our civilization, we have progressed out of oral tradition, into the reading and writing tradition. We celebrate the achievements of Gutenberg, and can only compare its positive effect, to the invention of the Internet. Gutenberg’s mass production of books allowed to deliver ideas to every man in the civilized world. The world was already too global, for direct instruction. But it appears that we are coming around full-circle, thanks to further advances of the Internet .The Internet is able to connect people again into small niche groups, irrespective of where on the globe they live. They can again consume information from the best teachers and thinkers through direct observation and listening.

I’ll close with this challenge. Dear reader, is there still hope for writing and reading books, and even Medium articles like this one?

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