A mechanically printed book of hours from 1498 made to resemble manuscript: an example of technical innovation surpassing innovation of use.

Horae ad usum Cenomanensem (Le Mans), 1498, Paris. Collection Bodleian Libraries.

1. Introduction

Following the development of a new technology there is generally a period in which businesses respond to the innovation by translating preexisting products and services into the new medium. For instance, after the invention of the printing press and movable type in the fifteenth century, printers interpreted the value of the new technology as being able to do faster what was done before: founts of type were made to resemble handwriting, and page borders were illustrated just as they had been in handwritten manuscripts. The new technology indeed made things faster, but there was not immediately a wholesale transformation of book production or consumption. For many years people mostly thought of printed books as inferior books.

The real transformation was to happen roughly fifty years later, in Venice, with a printer called Aldus Manutius. Aldus’ genius was to understand how the medium of the book itself needed to be changed in order to fully take advantage of the new technology. Aldus did two things. First, he commissioned new founts of type for a series of educational books he was producing. Second, he made the printed book smaller than it had ever been before, changing its form to make it transportable. The new founts he commissioned were what we today know as Roman and Italic fonts—legible, clear, and something we all take for granted. Using his new typography Aldus began printing Greek and Roman classical texts, as well as books of grammar and language drills. His books spread far and wide across Europe and the world. It was in turn through that dissemination of classical knowledge and education that the Renaissance itself became possible.

Today, at Aldus, we believe that education is yet to be revolutionised by the internet. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the 21st century equivalent of early printed books before Aldus Manutius: they have merely translated preexisting educational forms (lectures, syllabi, virtual certificates, “office hours” etc) onto the new medium. Online education has so far failed to understand how the form of education itself must be changed in order to take advantage of the new technology.

What it feels like to navigate knowledge on the internet?: Umberto Eco’s sketch for the labyrinthine library of The Name of the Rose.

2. How the Internet has changed the problem of education

For millennia, and until very recently, the problem of education was the problem of accessing information. Before the invention of movable type information was extremely expensive to produce and disseminate. A handwritten manuscript might take a scribe even years to complete, it would be heavy, unwieldy and fragile, and it could only be viewed in one place. There were also problems around authenticity and accuracy: how could one be sure that what the scribe had written was from an accurate source, and written correctly? These problems meant education was an impossibility for all but the wealthy, since it was only the wealthy who could afford books, leisure time and teachers. It also meant cultural knowledge was tenuous and unreliable; no one could quite be sure that their knowledge was the same as others shared.

Gutenberg’s invention of movable type reduced the cost of accessing knowledge, and ensured that information was accurately replicated. For the first time, a student reading a book in London could be sure that what they were reading was precisely the same as what a student in Venice was reading. This created new possibilities of learning, and was transformed most thoroughly by Aldus Manutius’ innovations in Venice. But printed books, for all their benefits, are still physical, and fragile, objects. You still had to congregate in a library, learn how to work with vast referencing systems, and often—even at the Bodleian or the British Library—one would still come up against the fact that there was no Library of Alexandria, no single storehouse of the world’s written knowledge. Generations of New Zealanders at Oxford, for instance, continued to come up against the problem that for all the Bodleian’s treasures, it did not hold even the key texts of New Zealand’s culture. The problem of education after the printing press was, still, the problem of accessing information.

Since the invention of the internet we have debated the ways in which this new technology would transform learning. It seems more than clear now that the internet’s central promise for education is in having (to a degree unimaginable just decades ago) eliminated the problem of accessing information. To repeat this: education is no longer a problem of locating knowledge. From a device in Aitutaki or Saint Lucia, Wellington or Vancouver, a student can access the world’s knowledge (“at the tip of their fingers”, or the “click of a button”, as the cliches go). The implications have been felt by all, but not fully understood or exploited.

From the problem of accessing information, the problem of education is now one of knowing what information to access. With access to anything and everything from anywhere and everywhere, students become lost in the library of Uqbar of Borges’ imagination. Knowledge is everywhere and limitless—there are truly no restrictions, which still could not be said of the Bodleian—but more than ever we do not know which way to turn, what path to follow through the library of forking paths. This is made worse by the fact that the provision of education now often takes place online: taking place digitally, students lose proximity and access to the best guide of all, the individual teacher. Educational responses to the internet have been in many cases not just misguided but actively harmful, because they have unwittingly made worse the new problem of education by taking students further from teachers and professors.

The problem of education has been reversed, but the provision of education remains the same. Provision now takes place in digital form, yes, but under the old paradigm; everything has changed for education, but all that has changed for students is that lectures are now found on YouTube and books can be read on an iPad. There is yet to be any meaningful response to the way that the problem of education has changed—the kind of transformational response of Aldus Manutius to the printing press and movable type in the late quattrocento. How to respond to the new problem of education? How to use the new technology to truly transform learning, and to spread cultural knowledge? These are the questions Aldus takes up today.

But first, at a time when universities have been transformed into departments of professional education and humanities departments have been at worst shut down and at best made impotent, it is necessary to consider the role of cultural education for individuals and for society.

Learning as the goal of life: The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1777).

3. A brief history of cultural education

Derived from the Latin educere, meaning to “lead forth” or to “bring out”, education is at heart about bringing out oneself. It is a process that happens not just in youth, but over a lifetime. Socrates, the great educator, viewed his own death itself as a form of self-education and the education of others. Education was lofty, it was significant, it was a lifelong project. It was about becoming a human being.

Today, instead, education means something like “training”—training for a job, training for a skill, learning to do rather than to be. There is no innate hierarchy between training and education; it is not that education’s traditional loftiness made it better or more significant than training. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin, the one essential for the other. To educate oneself deeply but to have no skills with which to apply that knowledge to the world leaves one impotent. After all, wisdom is only ever applied knowledge, and training is essential for application. The problem is that today education and training mean the same thing, leaving no vocabulary for a discussion of what education, in a traditional sense, might have done that training alone couldn’t. Universities abolish humanities departments and art history libraries because under the paradigm where education means training, administrators cannot fathom the humanities’ value. In reality, their value lies in helping us to determine what to value.

Various other terms have been used to talk about education in its traditional sense. In the United States, the “liberal arts” and “liberal education” are such terms, liberality being a way of describing education that is free from concerns over finances or career. But the “liberal” is also an end result of such an education: it makes one free. How does it do this? By leading out our selves, by teaching us to think, by broadening our minds, by encouraging a critical and nuanced view of the world. All things that training alone cannot do.

“Classical education” is another such term, often overlapping with discussion of the “great books.” Speaking about the “humanities” too is often a way in to discussion of education in the traditional sense. All these terms get at the role of the classic books in such an education. From Plato and Aristotle to Fitzgerald and Kundera, the great books teach us important things about life that we can learn in no other way.

Today, however, it is possible to complete thirteen years of compulsory schooling plus four years of an undergraduate degree and to still have never read a single one of Plato’s dialogues. Is this merely a reactionary stance against the modernisation of our education system? That is for each reader of this paper to decide. But we believe that far from classical education being outdated, there has never been a greater need for it. We need culture to “reenchant” our world, in the Weberian sense—to re-mystify a world that technology and the death of religion have made too rational. Classical education has also always gone hand in hand with democracy—its origins lie in ancient Athens—and the present tenuous state of democratic societies, combined with a general sense of hollowness and acedia in modern lives, is reason enough to think seriously about the state of humanities education.

To Aldus, a classical or liberal education is cultural education. Culture has always been at the heart of education for other than skills training. We pursue culture to discover life’s most important mysteries: we read literature to understand ourselves and the world, we look at art to be inspired and to be connected to a tradition, we listen to music to turn inwards and to escape into what is inherently unknowable. In a secular world it is culture alone that can fill the role religion once played, providing meaning to meaningless and aspiritual lives. Culture speaks to our “eulogy virtues” rather than those virtues merely of our resumes; culture is about everything, to quote an American statesman, that makes life worth living. Aldus proposes speaking about cultural education to find once again a vocabulary for the kind of education that is no longer being provided by schools and universities.

In a different age one may have been provided the means with which to pursue culture in high school or university. But the professionalisation of education has destroyed that possibility at exactly the same time as people have deep pockets and a growing need for cultural education. For us at Aldus this is the most significant opportunity to have existed in education, and it comes at exactly the time that a new technology gives us the means of answering it.

As Martin Lowry describes in his study The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice, “Literary education [for which read cultural education] improves character. The more good literature is made available, the more characters will be improved. To Aldus, printing was not a break in his activity as an educator, but a continuation of it into a new dimension. We have no means of knowing how or when he came to this conclusion… All we can know for certain is that by the end of the 1480s, Aldus had formed his conviction and was ready to put it into practise.”

4. The Opportunity of Cultural Education

    1. There is a significant and growing need for cultural education—as evidenced by the general disenchantment, hollowness, and acedia of modern lives, coupled with the precarious state of democratic life.

    2. This need comes at exactly the point when educational institutions—traditional providers of cultural education—have mostly stopped teaching culture, in favour of professional education.

    3. The internet has transformed the problem of education from one of access to knowledge to one of knowing what knowledge to access. Cultural education can exist for everyone, but, so far, the provision of education has not responded to this technological transformation.

Still looking for ways to spend money on our souls: an indulgence printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. (Morgan Library and Museum).

5. The Economic Opportunity

Who wants cultural education? Are we confusing a small group’s love of culture for a mass market’s need of it, to say nothing of their willingness to pay for it?

We know from the history of the Catholic Church between 1450 and 1517 alone that individuals in wealthy societies need a means of absolving latent guilt and meaninglessness—and that they are willing to pay large sums to do so. At that time the Catholic Church provided the fix: not through prayer and penance, however, but through indulgence. Indulgences were then physical slips of paper one purchased that provided the absolution of sin. They were in fact the Church’s own innovative use of the printing press and movable type, since they could now be printed mechanically in great quantities. We posit that humans have not changed so much since the sixteenth century; that most of us are still looking for the most effective ways to spend money on our souls.

More seriously, we can today see significant sums being spent on a variety of activities aimed at providing meaning and significance. Yoga is one such activity. There is a frenzy of cabin-building in forests in developed countries. We go on “digital detox retreats”. We buy oil paintings and sculptures, which have the added benefit of both giving our souls meaning and acting as shrewd investments. Much of the marketing rhetoric around these products and services speaks of “meaning” and the “life-changing” nature of the activity. This may be true, but we believe cultural education is far more effective at these tasks. Aldus believes that all this spending is money that should be in the market of cultural education, if only there exists an effective response to the technological opportunity that has arisen.

Cultural education has enabled flourishing democracy since Athenian times: Raphael’s School of Athens (1509, Vatican Museums).

6. The Societal Opportunity

Cultural education is good for individuals and it is good for society. This was taken for granted in the classical world, it was taken for granted during the Renaissance, and it was taken for granted until very recently.

It is good for individuals because culture provides connection to the world around us. Through culture we become embedded in networks of meaning—we draw connections across time, across nations, across races and genders, and across interests. Through culture we learn how to see ourselves at the centre of a vast network of connections in which everything has meaning. While walking endlessly along grey concrete streets on a daily commute we can see how the activity has a long history of which we are acting out a significant part; we can look at the buildings and understand the importance of the architecture, the personalities who were involved in building our cities; we can become aware of which writer lived in which house, and which painter two hundred years ago painted the scene of our commute. Culture transforms the mundane and the everyday, and it is an effective fix for the kind of hollowness that modern, digitally-connected lives seem to bring about.

Music can calm, it can inspire. Painting gives us entirely new eyes with which to see the world. A novel gives us empathy and understanding. Poetry provides vibrations of what our conscious minds can only guess at. Philosophy deepens our minds and our morals, while a good essayist can make even the death of a moth upon a writer’s desk a moment of spiritual significance. Culture is the world—something we are all of us, at heart, unfailingly interested in.

All that is one way of thinking about it. Another is the democratic opportunity. The connection between cultural education and democracy is strong and deep. Not for no reason did democracy arise in Athens, a state in which philosophy and education flourished. There have always been deep connections between education and the health of democracy, and for this reason it seems more than coincidental that at exactly the time when our universities have stopped teaching culture, our democracies too have wobbled.

We’ve lost the ability to empathise with those different from us, and many of us have lost the ability to think critically. When words on Twitter are taken as gospel, and when the link between truth and morality has been broken, society starts to falter. What has been absent from political debate is the role that education might have in this faltering. Aldus believes that if the opportunity in cultural education is exploited effectively, individuals and society are the ultimate beneficiaries.

7. Visions of a Response

And how? How to take advantage of this opportunity? What does a transformation of cultural education using new internet technologies look like?

Some companies are birthed from the invention of a new product. Often either mundane or reliant on momentary flashes of genius, these businesses are generally limited in their scale and reach though they can provide significant change for a time. Others, including many of the world’s most valuable internet technology companies, arise from stumblings  and fumblings around an idea. Facebook was not born as Facebook, nor Airbnb as Airbnb. These are companies built from gradual accumulations of experimentation and ideas, and they have ultimately transformed not just industries but the entire world. In the realm of cultural education, we believe any lasting enterprise that involves meaningful change must come about in this latter way. Here, in this document, we commit to those stumblings and fumblings—and we commit to them sufficiently to believe we will find an answer if given enough time.

The following are principles we follow while searching for a solution to the new problem of education:

1. Syllabi are key

Education has long focussed on providing access to knowledge, whether it be through the medium of a teacher’s mind or a classic book. Knowledge itself was the product: one purchased access. But today, the educational paradigm under which we must proceed is one in which knowledge is ubiquitous, free, and accessed from anywhere. There is extreme resistance to paying for access to information, a reality visible in the struggle of news organisations to entice paying subscribers, and in the prevalence of illegal streaming of movies and documentaries. The growth of online education on websites such as Khan Academy and Coursera also indicates the ubiquity of knowledge, but, we believe, those services also indicate the problem—course completion rates are shockingly low, and quality is generally poor.

What people will pay for under the new paradigm is guidance through, and to, knowledge. Knowledge may now be ubiquitous, but it is more difficult than ever to find what one needs. In sheer abundance we wallow. We scroll and we scroll, but Google’s algorithms are created to maximise attention, not learning. An effective path through knowledge is a hard thing to come by, and is perhaps now only to be found in some “elite” universities.

Syllabi have always been the centre of guidance through knowledge. From everything that a subject could feasibly contain, syllabi narrow that down to a guided course. More than that: a syllabus uses the mind of an expert and a teacher to curate (that is the word these days) knowledge, to make a subject manageable, and to allow texts to grow in significance in the company of others. Aldus believes syllabi should be at the heart of any online cultural education offering.

Where a university syllabus is restricted (by time, by politics, by medium), an Aldus syllabus is free simply to make the most of learning. It can mix knowledge available in book form, on YouTube, in a podcast and as a PDF—all of this can be put in the same syllabus. Aldus syllabi can be crafted by multiple individuals, and, ideally, they will respond fluidly depending on what someone is wanting to learn about. We can imagine a website that creates custom syllabi from a user’s input: they might select “art history”, “Asia Pacific”, “Intermediate”, “Text and video online”, and “Short version”. From this, the Aldus website would provide a kind of highlighted executive summary of key knowledge sources on Asia-Pacific art history for someone already roughly familiar with art. Any possible permutation could eventually become possible on the Aldus website.

2. Mentoring and one-to-one teaching are more important than ever

A significant paradox exists in how education has so far responded to internet technologies. It is this: the internet makes the individual teacher more valuable than ever, but at the same time takes us further from in-person contact with a teacher. True educators “reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being,” said Nietzsche, something known by those who had that special professor at university who transformed their world of knowledge. We believe a meaningful educational response to new internet technologies must forge a new kind of connection between students and teachers.

What kind of connection? For one thing, the internet has often been called a “new Athens” because of the way it gives everyone a voice. The truth of that statement has begun to wane as online discussion more often resembles the contents of a sewer than a classical fora. But perhaps for education it might still have some truth. Students once came from across Europe to Athens to find educators, and once in Athens they could listen to various philosophers before deciding who to attach themselves to. The internet gives educators everywhere an enormous reach, and gives students freedom of choice. No student should have to listen to a teacher they find they have no connection with.

To us it seems that the problem at present is that there is no effective online fora where students and teachers can find one another. Educators stay in physical, offline institutions, often struggling financially when those institutions seem nowadays only to value STEM education. They write books, perhaps record a YouTube lecture. The internet frees them to find students and to spread their knowledge, but at present there does not exist the right forum in which they can do so.

And from the student perspective? Here when we talk about a student we mean as much someone in their mid-thirties busy with a professional job as someone 19 and freshly beginning university. It is in fact likely to be the busy professional who most feels the need for the cultural education they never had. If we manage to make cultural education visible, and if we provide a forum where those students can find the educator they need, the results may be nothing short of transformational. Educators around the world may find a new and significant form of income, freeing themselves to focus on their most meaningful work. And students may find cultural education to be a significant part of their lives too long ignored.

3. Commodify all learning

Learning is frequently traded for grades and diplomas. In this sense it is commodified: it has an economic value attached to it, and is undertaken for instrumental rather than intrinsic reasons. Many people have derided this state of affairs. Academics have derided it most of all, despite the fact that academia is one of the principal causes of commodified learning. But rather than attempting to refute or revert this state of affairs, we believe the solution is to advance the commodification of learning—to take it further, to try to attach economic and social value to all learning. We believe that in doing so, we must just arrive back at learning for intrinsic reasons.

To explain. When some kinds of learning are commodified and others aren’t, we find it far easier to pursue that knowledge which is commodified. Rather spend a spare hour re-reading a textbook to achieve better grades in an exam than reading a new novel: the former has an economic and societal reward attached to it, and the latter doesn’t. But if both kinds of learning have economic and societal value attached to them, the choice becomes null—we pursue that which matters most to us. The means may be criticised, but the outcome is desirable on both an individual and a societal level.

How to commodify all learning? “Gamification” is the term for turning online activities into game-like pursuits, with clear rewards. For many years people “checked in” to their current location online because app-makers (Foursquare and then Facebook) gave out virtual points and “titles” to those who did this. There are various levels of mundanity to gamification, but at heart all it involves is providing virtual rewards in the form of status and titles to those who undertake online activities. We can imagine an Aldus product offering where all learning completed online results in displayable titles. You get one title as a reward for completing a syllabus on art history, and another for an introduction to modern British poetry. The end result is you pursue the learning that interests you most, and get to have a displayable record of the learning you’ve done. This approach might be likened to expanding degrees into myriad categories: rather than just studying for a BA and an MA, there might eventually be tens of thousands of “degrees” you can study for, each resulting in a title. Learning then becomes addictive—and this is good for all involved.

Attempts at this kind of gamification have been made before. But none have taken seriously learning as the outcome, and none have been built on an understanding of the educational paradigm that now exists. The real Aldus innovation lies in the combination of these guiding principles, rather than any one of them alone.

4. “Living and learning communities” at the heart of education

Though the internet presents a social facade, it in fact risks reducing our connection with other people. Three hours on Instagram is not three hours with human beings; we must not mistake algorithmic attention-grabbing for social behaviour. Now, from a different angle, consider that learning has always been social: Socrates learned by asking, not by reading alone in his room, and for millennia students have congregated together to undertake their learning. At the world’s best colleges and universities students attend seminars and tutorials with fellow students and their teachers.

Putting those realities together: any true learning must be focussed on living and learning communities, or, to put it another way, on geographic locations where people can physically congregate. We believe that any attempts at online education that focus only on the digital at the expense of the physical and the communal will ultimately offer nothing more than glorified encyclopaedias. And we all know that the man who has read every word in every encyclopaedia does not make for particularly compelling company, no matter how much he might know.

The communities of learning we envisage may take numerous different forms. From the simple, like in-person weekly seminars attended by those completing the same Aldus syllabi; to the complex, such as partnering with existing universities around the world to expand in-person lecture and seminar offerings to “students” of all ages and walks of life. Another possibility might be to offer week-long learning retreats. After all, people pay immense sums for yoga retreats, and yoga will never offer the transformation that true learning will. The trick is to show how in-person human connection will, like in the schools of Athens, offer truly life-changing and life-affirming learning possibilities.

Aldus Manutius’ printers mark: Make haste, slowly.

8. Conclusion: A Cultural Renaissance?

Are we living through a new renaissance or another middle ages? We believe the question is still open. It was not for sixty years after Gutenberg’s printing press that some writers and artists gained sufficient perspective on their present to realise the remarkable cultural breakthroughs being made—and the same might be true for us. Certainly it is difficult, looking around, to think we are at all living up to previous cultural heights. But is it not, after all, for future generations to judge our own?

The revolutionary potential of the internet is hard to overstate, and yet there is no inevitability in the matter. Whether the revolution occurs towards some kind of anarchy or towards a cultural and intellectual renaissance depends on what we do in the coming decades. Culture is, in the end, remarkably undemocratic—it depends on exceptional individuals to drag it forward and yank it along, often in direct opposition to mass opinion. But it is society, and democracy, that ultimately benefits.

The hubris would be real were it not for this fact: at Aldus we believe in our role only as cultural enablers. Like Aldus Manutius, who knew that his role was to use new technologies to help students and educators find one another, we want merely to be a cultural medium rather than cultural actors. It is not for us to determine the cultural heights of the future; leave that to the poets, painters, composers and essayists to come. But that we might enable those artists to do what they otherwise might not have done, and that we might encourage an educated, attentive and receptive public to the kind of culture they create—that is our task.

Wellington, New Zealand