History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migrations from one environment to another. – Ellsworth Huntington
I’m reading Violet Moller’s The map of knowledge: How classical ideas were lost and found and it’s introduced me to a few ideas that explain questions that have been lurking around for a while.
There’s a good chance you have a view on migration – and immigration. If you’ve lived in a country for a while, especially one that is relatively prosperous, you might see people coming and staying in the country as a story of economic migration.
You could see that in one of two ways. Either they’re travelling in search of a better life or they’re coming to take advantage of the benefits your society offers.
Maybe you recognise that some people move because they have to – because of war or because they are no longer safe. They move to save their lives.
Maybe you see that there are changes to the economic fundamentals of where they live. Some villages have only old people left, the young have moved to the cities in search of opportunity.
Moller’s book shines a light on when people move in search of knowledge – and that is relevant to the history of the community I come from. It turns out that throughout history there have been epochs when particularly enlightened rulers supported scholarship. In the West ancient Greek knowledge was preserved in private libraries and in institutions like the great library at Alexandria in the first millennium. The light of knowledge in the West was nearly snuffed out by religion but was preserved in the Middle East where a new generation of rulers established institutions for learning. In more recent history we see the renaissance and the birth of early modern science and the growth of the educational institutions we see today.
People who care about knowledge don’t move for the money – as Moller describes, what they need is a place to work and a place to sleep. Cities and governments that provide access to scholarly resources will attract scholars. Those that don’t will lose them. The world is now full of students who aren’t moving because they want a better life – they’re moving to places that will give them the knowledge they need to be successful at doing something.
What Moller’s history shows is that any nation that wants to grow has to have ways to attract scholars – bright people who can do things. A city can have everything – Athens did, Rome did, Alexandria did, Baghdad did. Baghdad in 800 AD was a global centre of learning, attracting scholars from East and West.
But wealth and power do not last – and when they turn on learning, scholars move to new locations that recognise the transformative power of knowledge.
It would see that people move for work, for knowledge and because they have to. If people try and come to where you are – it’s perhaps not because they want to take what you have but because your government recognises that they bring something valuable that will help your community grow. The day you put up barriers and keep them out is also the day from which your community will get weaker and weaker until one day, perhaps, it will be your turn to leave and find somewhere new to go.