Three Revolutions

Three Revolutions

Presented by Jeanne Phoenix Laurel

Associate Professor and Chair of English
Niagara University
Sigma Tau Delta (Alpha Alpha Zeta chapter) induction ceremony
November 16, 2012, 7 p.m., Academic Complex, Room 320

We've all taken some time out of a terribly hectic time in our schedules to honor the achievements of Niagara University English Department’s best and brightest, the English majors. These young people have excelled because of people who came before them. Their faculty worked to become the very best teachers they can be; their friends and immediate family have worked to support them; their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on back have made a way, sometimes a way out of no way, to give them the opportunity to develop their gifts and abilities.

We owe a debt to those who have come before. Tonight, I want to take a closer look at what we have inherited from the past, and how that inheritance informs who we will become in the future: as individuals, as members of the English Department, as profess-ors—those who profess, practice and proclaim—within a discipline, English.

I want to structure my speech around something Dr. Philip Collington wrote, when the department was asked by our new academic vice president Dr. Timothy Downs what makes each department on this campus unique. Dr. Collington pointed out that “our discipline spans the three great human revolutions (paper, print, electronic) as we teach everything from Anglo-Saxon manuscript poetry to design for the Web.”


It is said that language defines us as human beings. We are hard-wired with what early 20th century American poet Wallace Stevens called “a rage to order,” a need to organize our realities through symbolic, abstract systems of sound (or in the case of signed languages, through movement). In The New Science, published in 1725 by Italian Renaissance man Giambattista Vico, I've read the most plausible description of how language started: primitive man (or perhaps woman) exclaimed in response to some external stimulus--let us say “fire!” or “very big herd of stampeding elephants; everybody move to the left !” (Okay, I’m stretching it a bit--it probably sounded a little more like “ow-wow-wow.”) Others were listening; when the same external stimulus was present, another savvy man or woman, realizing that people would know to get out of the way, and fast, to the left at the same sound, uttered it again. The repetition and association of a phenomenon, or a sign, was born.

Paper was not the first revolution that made language portable, of course. People had begun pressing twigs repeatedly into clay tablets by the 30th century B.C. in somewhat abstract patterns to represent sound. Now, that may be a good way of keeping track of how much tax your subjects have paid on their grain, or perhaps recording the edicts of your king. But imagine how many rooms of this size you would need simply to store a Norton anthology (which even on onionskin paper is the size and heft of a cinder block).

Flat, thin papyrus pancakes were eminently more portable--and that made for some phenomenal transformations in the structure of human organization. Now, people had the means to extend the rule of law—which was not altered or distorted by badly-remembered, deliberately misquoted text, or even by the death of “He Who Has Memorized.” The rule of law on paper could be carried by hand instead of by mule-train, and could extend to distant cities; cities could become allies, leagues, empires. Trade could be conducted with complex bookkeeping. Knowledge of how to do this, and what happened back then, and why we are a people favored by God, could be transmitted from generation to generation. This knowledge could be built upon, developed, and extended--everything from your grandma’s recipe for apple pie to the physics of building an irrigation system could be transmitted over space and time.


The second revolution, print, came in 1440. As the amounts of thought, ideas, knowledge, argument grew and grew, it became obvious that paper with hand-written language had a drawback: it was time-consuming to reproduce. Time is money--and money is power. Those who had access to written texts tended to be wealthy. Again, our standard cinder block sized Norton anthology would be impossibly expensive for anyone in the middle classes to purchase. Imagine if you will a book of some 5000 pages; if each page (optimistically) takes half an hour to transcribe, and if the scribe is paid $10 an hour, that’s $25,000. And you thought the price of today’s textbooks was absurd!

Print, then, made books reproducible in greater numbers, at lesser cost. However, once again there were unforeseen consequences, incredible transformations of human organization and structure. We would never be the same again. As the price of books went down, the variety of genres proliferated. We not only had the Bible printed in the vulgate, the language that everyone spoke (rather than Latin), which spawned a revolution in religious thought. The very earliest European settlers in what became the United States brought with them printing presses among their precious few items transported across the Atlantic. (Maybe in hindsight, the British should have banned export of the printing press.) In addition to religious and political materials, printing enabled the distribution of almanacs, and agricultural manuals, and newspapers. Amazingly, even, by the beginning of the 1600s, we had the first modern novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha, a tale about a knight who had read so much that his wits dried up and they blew away. He was mad, quite mad, because he had read so much trashy literature!


We are barely 30 years into the electronic era, and already we are seeing some of the same potential for social transformation that the earlier revolutions brought. I suspect that as young as some of us are in this room, we all have stories about what is changing around us. Research and pundits are suggesting that “books”—novels, collections of stories, what have you—are growing shorter in the Kindle era. The book itself is changing shape. Us older folks are digging up friends we knew decades ago, without having to travel to the dreaded High School Reunion to do so: Facebook.

I was able to write this speech in a scant two hours, because I could look up the specifics on Giambattista Vico, whom I haven’t read for 30 years, and the date for the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Some ten years ago, had I arrived at my blank page on the computer screen three hours before the final product was due, I would have been in melt-down. Instead, I could look up a few details on the web, upload the document to my cloud storage space on Google docs, and here I am. (Actually, that worked out well until I realized I had locked my analog keys in my office, where my computer and printer were, and had to call Campus Safety to open my door.)

I’m working faster. I’m not sure that’s good. Apparently one of the dirty little facts of our 9% national unemployment rate is that we’ve hit a critical point in this revolution: computers are doing the work of people in some cases. On a recent podcast, I heard that the case law research it used to take legions of junior lawyers to research now takes a few minutes. Ken Jennings, the longest-running Jeopardy champion on record, quipped after he and a fellow Jeopardy superstar were trounced by Watson, the IBM supercomputer champ, “I welcome our computer overlords.”

So where does that leave English majors? Is our future bleak? Hardly.

I bring you good tidings, from no less than Michelle Obama. On November 8, 2011, at Georgetown University, Mrs. Obama was asked for her thoughts about what might be the best college majors students might take. I quote at length, from the academic daily newspaper published only online, Inside Higher Education:

“I have to say I’m not as up on the exact right college majors, but I think—here’s my answer: That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education, and I value liberal arts education because you’re really getting a broad skill set. And I think one of the things that’s important to be able to do in life is learn how to read and write—write really well and articulate your views. So if you’re planning on going to graduate school, if you’re going to law school, for example, almost any liberal arts major that’s pushing you into writing where you have to write a thesis maybe, a large research paper at the end of the year, that kind of stuff is really good preparation for law school.”

To our outstanding English majors I say: You have what it takes. You have the flexibility, the integrity, the ability to prosper in the midst of this revolution. And you have more: you have the opportunity and the know-how to shape this revolution to benefit us all. You have stood on the shoulders of giants; now, what are you going to do with it?