Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mersenne, Education, and Intellectual "Property"

French cleric Marin Mersenne was the academic journal of his day.  I have heard it said that in the seventeenth century the saying was "If you want to tell Europe, tell Mersenne." 

Hobbes mentions Mersenne several times in his verse autobiography - high praise for a Roman Catholic cleric from someone whose antipathy for the Roman church and its philosophy was both deep and wide.  But when Hobbes needed friends during his exile in France, Mersenne was glad to be one of those friends.  Mersenne was a friend to all who were engaged in research.  He was a living example of that idea of Justin Martyr's that Christians need not fear any books at all, since all the truth they contain belongs to the God who made and sustains it.

He was a friend to Galileo, and he passed Galileo's research on the regular oscillation of pendula along to Huygens in Holland, since he knew Huygens was trying to invent a more regular way of keeping time, leading to the invention of the pendulum clock.  He corresponded with Pascal, Gassendi, and Descartes, and what he learned from one he shared with others who could use it.

In his Carnage and Culture, Victor Davis Hanson claims that one of the reasons for technological flourishing in the west is that western cultures treat knowledge as property that can be sold in the marketplace.  I can't say whether Hanson's causal inference is correct, but his observation about intellectual "property" is acute.

But alongside it we should add another observation, namely that universities have long been places where ideas are exchanged freely.  Yes, students pay tuition, but we also give free public lectures, allow free or inexpensive auditing, etc.  What is being sold in the university is not the information but the cost of maintaining a place of intentional colloquy and pedagogy.  We aren't selling ideas to students; we are allowing them to join us in the maintenance of a vital institution, and as members of that institution they participate in its life and share in its learning.

Mersenne was not a merchant of ideas but their curator, a steward ushering them to the places they were most needed.  He was a gardener who made very few original contributions but who shared the best cultivars he could find with others in whose gardens they could flourish.  His approach to knowledge was like that of the church in its earliest years, where "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" and goods were "distributed to each as they had need."

Mersenne's model is relevant to our contemporary conversations about the meaning and cost of an education, the value of universities, and the publication of scientific journals.  Some money will be needed to maintain these institutions, but we should resist reducing them to market-based enterprises, or valuing their contributions in terms of revenues.  There is also the shared work of curiosity, and of desiring to see our neighbors, and their ideas, flourish. 

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