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Rufus Fears delivers provocative analysis of technology’s role in transforming human knowledge

Dr. J. Rufus Fears, keynote speaker at the recent symposium on “Education in the Digital Age,” delivered an address both provocative and challenging.

The stage was set when Brandon Dutcher, vice president of policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, introduced the venerable academic. Dutcher quipped, “We are foolish if we think our microchips and bandwidth make us immune to the lessons of history, as I’m sure Dr. Fears will remind us. And unlike previous speakers, he won’t be using a PowerPoint.

“Dr. Fears is a historian of freedom and, like Lord Acton, he understands that power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

Dr. Fears proceeded to deliver a powerful distillation of thousands of years of human history – without either notes or power points. His theme was “The New Technology: Lessons from History.”

Fears praised the late Milton Friedman, author of the seminal best seller, “Free to Choose.” The OU classics instructor’s address was sponsored by the Foundation for Educational Choice, a group established by Dr. Friedman and his wife, Rose.

Fears said he is not worried by the advent of technology, per se, but by the potential misuse of high technology to undermine economic liberty. He worries, he said, “not that children don’t learn about the Constitution, but how they learn about the Constitution.”

He asserted, “Reforming education is the most difficult task in the world.” He reflected, “When technology takes the lead, knowledge can be transformed.”

In his view, there have been three key moments in human history where the advance of human knowledge was impacted by technology.

The first, he believes, was “the invention of writing in Mesopotamia” thousands of years ago. In that era, for the ancient city of Ur and in the delta of Egypt, the inventions of writing emerged essentially as a means to record, and help collect, taxes.

This yielded “entire armies of bureaucrats to record those taxes.” Still, human commerce grew, along with cultural touchstones like the Epic of Gilgamesh, a sort of precursor to the stories the Greek poet Homer told that were also later recorded for posterity.

“Unfortunately, writing then essentially became a means of making despotism stronger. That is always the great danger of technology,” Fears said.

The second great era of technology transformation impacting human knowledge came, he said, with “the invention of printing, and the printed page, in Europe.”

This second wave led inevitably to conflict between religion as it then was understood and the ability of people directly to examine Sacred Scriptures for themselves. Seeds for transformation of higher learning lay in the works of Martin Luther, whose study of the Bible in printed Greek texts led him to challenge doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

The clash over the meaning of Scripture, grace, faith and works led Luther to post his 95 Theses on All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween – October 31, 1517. From Luther’s work came wider translations of the Bible into common languages, and the emergence of conscience and belief as the basis for political structures.

From all that, Fears argued, came the press for religious liberty, economic freedom and other fundamentals that led to the American founding.

Fears then turned to the third great wave of technological developments touching human knowledge, the wave of transformational changes and “technological developments … since far back in the last century to television, computers, TV, information processing and distribution.”

Dr. Fears believes the open question is whether this last surge of knowledge driven by technology is “going to be tool of freedom, or just a means of cheap communication that brings down the soul. It is up to us to decide if freedom will increase, or if this is a mechanism, a tool for despotism.”

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