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Centers of Progress, Pt. 2: Uruk (Writing)

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Centers of Progress, Pt. 2: Uruk (Writing)

The emergence of written language has allowed humanity to transmit precise information across vast stretches of space and of time.

Today marks the second installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc. Part 1 can be found here.

Our second Center of Progress is Uruk, the worlds first large city and the birthplace of writing around 3200 BC. By creating the first writing system, the people of Uruk revolutionized humanitys ability to exchange information.

Before the invention of writing, the only way people could communicate was by speaking to each other in person. Communication over vast distances and across long stretches of time was restricted by the fallibility of human memory. It was possible to send a messenger to a faraway city, but there was always a risk that the messenger would not recite the message accurately. People were able to pass down knowledge and histories through oral traditions from one generation to the next, but the details tended to change over time.

Today, Uruk is an uninhabited archeological site preserved in the desert of southern Iraq. It is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honoring the relict landscape of the Mesopotamian cities.” You can still see the remains of the city walls and gates, make out the shape of the streets and the layout of the houses from their crumbling foundations, and view the cracked steps of the temple mounds.

Todays Uruk is quiet and ghostly. But if you were to visit Uruk in the late 4th millennium BC, you would have entered a thriving hub of art and commerce populated by around 10,000 inhabitants. That would increase to between 30,000 and 50,000 inhabitants by the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC.

For perspective, Uruk’s population in the late 4th millennium BC was about the same as the population of the small town of Brattleboro, Vermont, today. But Uruk was among the first settlements to achieve a population of that size and is considered by many to be the worlds first large city. In the year 3200 BC, Uruk was the largest city in Mesopotamia and possibly in the entire world.

As Uruks population grew, its society became more complex and the Sumerian civilization (the world’s first true civilization, which flourished in southern Mesopotamia between 4500 BC and 1500 BC) reached its creative peak. Surviving tablets indicate that Uruk had over a hundred different professions, including ambassadors, priests, stonecutters, gardeners, weavers, smiths, cooks, jewelers and potters.

Walking through the streets of Bronze Age Uruk, you would have seen merchants hawking their wares, beautiful gardens with palm trees, and temples rising high above all of the other structures. The temple complexes were places of religious importance, but that was not their only purpose. You may have seen men carrying clay pitchers filled with grain into the temples, because these imposing monuments were also where the people of Uruk stored their surplus food.

The arid desert around Uruk had few natural resources. To compensate for that lack, the people developed robust trade networks with other communities. They imported wood from the Taurus, Zagros and Lebanon mountain ranges, and lapis lazuli stones from as far away as Afghanistan. Some of these valuable imports were also stored in the temples.

Near one of the temple’s entryways, you may have witnessed a history-altering breakthrough. You may have seen an accountant or record-keeper marking a clay tablet each time a pitcher of grain entered the temple. He would have made a small picture of a grain stalk next to his tally marks, like the citys record-keepers had done for centuries.

But if you looked more closely, you would have observed that his picture was not really a picture at all. That is because, over the course of many years, the record-keepers’ pictures had become simpler to make taking inventory of goods faster. Eventually, the image that was used to represent grain in the temple records no longer even vaguely resembled a grain stalk. The pictographs evolved, in other words, to become non-pictorial symbols that represented concepts⁠—such as grain.

By agreeing on a set of abstract symbols to represent common goods stored in their temple warehouses, Uruks accountants were able to avoid the laborious chore of making detailed drawings on their clay tablets.

Eventually, the people of Uruk used these written symbols to not only represent different concepts, like grain or fish or sheep, but to also represent the spoken sounds that people used to express those concepts. Once they had symbols for different sounds, it became possible to write out names or other words phonetically. After that innovation, the Sumerians were able to write down more than simple inventory lists. They could also create increasingly complex documents. Their written output ranged from lengthy epic poems and wisdom literature, to genealogies and lists of kings.

According to the writings of the ancient Sumerians, the city of Uruk was built by the mythical king Enmerkar. This epic hero was thought to have been the son of the Sumerian sun god Utu and a cow (an animal that the Sumerians revered and associated, due to its production of milk, with motherhood). Enmerkar is said to have ruled Uruk for hundreds of years. If the mythical figure of Enmerkar is loosely based on a real ruler, then he would have lived at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 3rd millennium BC.

In Sumerian legend, which was preserved in the epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, it is Enmerker who is credited with the invention of writing. The legend says that he did so during a period of tense negotiation with a neighboring king, the ruler of the rival city-state Aratta. Enmerkar was purportedly dissatisfied that his messenger, who was exhausted from traveling back and forth between Uruk and Aratta reciting messages, could only relay messages of limited length to convey to the neighboring king.

So Enmerkar purportedly picked up some clay, magically created a complete written language, and proceeded to write a message down for his messenger to deliver to the king of Aratta. Specifically, the myth states:

[King Enmerkars] speech was substantial, and its contents extensive. The messenger, whose mouth was heavy, was not able to repeat it. Because the messenger, whose mouth was tired, was not able to repeat it, the lord of [Uruk] patted some clay and wrote the message as if on a tablet. Formerly, the writing of messages on clay was not established. Now, under that sun and on that day, it was indeed so.

That colorful legend shows that the Sumerians valued written language so highly that they thought only a king (and an ostensible demigod, no less) could create something so important.

In reality, writing was not invented by a king, but by the citys accountants. Moreover, it was not created all at once in a burst of creative genius, but arose gradually over many generations. It was not originally created to gain an advantage in international diplomacy, but instead came about for the far less glamorous reason mentioned earlier: book-keeping. As such, the earliest writings that survive to today tend to be inventory lists, shopping lists, wage records, lists allocating rations for temple workers, and shopping receipts.

The people of Uruk wrote with reeds and clay, because those materials were both widely available. Uruk is situated amid the Mesopotamian Marshes, a rare watery landscape in the middle of an otherwise dry desert. The wetlands, fed by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, may have been larger in the past than they are today. A channel of the Euphrates that has since dried up is thought to have flowed very close to Uruk.

After cutting a reed from the marshy banks of the Euphrates, the people of Uruk at some point discovered that when a single reed is pressed, with its cut edge facing down, into soft wet clay, it produces a distinctive wedge shape. When the clay dried and hardened, that shape was preserved.

When the accountants simplified their pictographs into ever more abstract symbols, those symbols took the form of certain arrangements of wedge-shaped marks, which then became the first characters or “letters.” That is why the earliest writing system is now known as cuneiform, from the Latin for wedge-shaped.”

Originally, record-keepers would take inventory by writing up-to-down on their clay tablets, as if making a list. After many years of writing that way, the scribes developed an innovative new system of writing from left-to-right. That innovation reduced the risk of smudging what had been written before the clay dried.

However, the temple priests and other literate people of Uruk were accustomed to reading records from top-to-bottom, not from left-to-right, and did not care for the scribes’ new system. The scribes came up with a solution that would allow themselves to write from left-to-right, while still allowing their tablets to be read from top-to-bottom. Ingeniously, the scribes simply wrote down versions of their written symbols that were rotated by ninety degrees. Writing their symbols sideways allowed those reading the tablets in the old way, from top-to-bottom, not to be inconvenienced.

Eventually, people began to read the symbolic script in the same way that it was written, from left-to-right. But because the already abstract symbols were rotated, they became even more abstract, hastening the process of moving from simple pictographs to cuneiform characters. Below, see the evolution of the cuneiform character meaning head,” from a simple picture drawn around the year 3000 BC into a highly abstract cuneiform character almost a thousand years later.

Today, Uruk is best-known as the city of the ancient hero Gilgamesh, as described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. That epic poem began as a series of poems composed around 2100 BC, although the most complete surviving version is considerably more recent, dating to the 12th century BC.

Scholars believe that a real person named Gilgamesh probably ruled Uruk sometime between 2800 and 2500 BC, and came to be described as a demigod and larger-than-life hero after his death. Thanks to the invention of writing, people today are able to enjoy not only Sumerian literature, but all of human literary output ranging from the plays of William Shakespeare to the science fiction of Isaac Asimov.

For being the worlds first large city and the birthplace of writing, Bronze Age Uruk deserves to be recognized as our second Center of Progress. Writing gave humanity a new means of creative self-expression and the ability to exchange information across generations and across the globe.

Blog Post | Leisure

Centers of Progress, Pt. 34: Kyoto (The Novel)

The courtly competition in Kyoto produced groundbreaking artistic innovations, including the world's first novel.

Today marks the thirty-fourth installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

The thirty-fourth Center of Progress is Kyoto during the Heian (meaning “peace”) period (794–1185 AD), a golden age of Japanese history that saw the rise of a distinctive high culture devoted to aesthetic refinement and the emergence of many enduring artistic styles. As the home of the imperial court, Kyoto was the political battleground where noble families vied for prestige by patronizing the best artists. This courtly competition produced groundbreaking innovations in many areas, including literature, and birthed a new literary form that would redefine fiction-writing: the novel.

Today, Kyoto remains the cultural heart of Japan. Its well-preserved Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and royal palaces attract tourists from around the world, and its zen gardens have had a profound influence on the art of landscaping. Some of its historic sights together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traditional crafts represent an important part of the city’s economy, with kimono-weavers, sake-brewers, and many other renowned local artisans continuing to produce goods using heritage techniques.

In other ways, Kyoto is on the cutting-edge. The city is a hub of the information technology and electronics industries, houses the headquarters of the video game company Nintendo, and contains some 40 institutions of higher education, including the prestigious Kyoto University. The population of Kyoto now exceeds 1.45 million people, and the broader metropolitan region, including Osaka and Kobe, is the second-most populated area in Japan.

Surrounded on three sides by mountains, Kyoto has been renowned for its natural beauty since ancient times, from the famous Sagano Bamboo Grove to the blossoming cherry trees along the banks of the Kamo River in the city’s southwest. That natural beauty helped win the city’s nickname, “Hana no Miyako,” the City of Flowers.

Archeological evidence suggests that humans have lived in the area since the Paleolithic period. While few relics remain from the city’s beginnings, some of Kyoto’s architecture, such as the Shinto Shimogamo Shrine, dates to the 6th century AD. Japanese architecture relies heavily on wood, which deteriorates quickly, so the original building materials have not survived. However, the millennia-long Japanese tradition of continuously revitalizing wooden structures with rigorous respect for their initial form “has ensured that what is visible today conforms in almost every detail with the original structures.” The most famous example of this architectural renewal is the Shinto shrine in Ise, 80 miles to Kyoto’s southeast, which has been completely dismantled and rebuilt every two decades for millennia. During the Heian era, that shrine became known for imperial patronage, with the emperor often sending messengers from Kyoto to pay respects to the sacred site.

Kyoto was officially established in the year 794. Emperor Kanmu (735–806 AD), likely feeling threatened by the growing power of Buddhist religious leaders, moved his court away from the great monasteries in the old capital of Nara. Initially, in AD 784, he moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyō, but a series of disasters struck after the move, including the assassination of a key imperial advisor, the death of the emperor’s mother and three of his wives (including the empress), drought alternating with flooding, earthquakes, famine, a smallpox epidemic, and a severe illness that sickened the crown prince. The government’s official Divination Bureau blamed that last misfortune on the vengeful ghost of the emperor’s half-brother Sawara, who had starved himself to death after a politically-motivated imprisonment.

While a popular narrative holds that Kanmu abandoned Nagaoka-kyō to flee the purported ghost, there may be a less spooky explanation. In AD 793, the emperor’s advisor Wake no Kiyomaro (733–799 AD), perhaps one of the best hydraulic engineers of the 8th century, may have convinced the emperor that flood-proofing Nagaoka-kyō would be more expensive than starting from scratch in a less flood-prone location.

Whatever the reason, in AD 794, Kanmu moved the capital again, erecting a new city along a grid pattern modeled after the illustrious Chinese Tang-dynasty (618–907 AD) capital of Chang’an. The lavish new capital cost a staggering three-fifths of Japan’s national budget at the time. Its layout strictly conformed to Chinese feng shui or geomancy, a pseudoscience that seeks to align manmade structures with the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west in a precise way thought to bring good fortune. The imperial palace compound, enclosed by a large rectangular outer wall (the daidairi), was built in the city’s north and faced south. Fires presented a constant problem to the predominantly wooden complex, and, although rebuilt many times, the Heian Palace no longer exists. (The present Kyoto Imperial Palace, modeled on the Heian period style, occupies a nearby location). 

From the Heian Palace’s main entrance emanated a large central thoroughfare, the monumental Suzaku Avenue. Over 260-feet wide, Suzaku Avenue ran through the center of the city to the enormous Rashōmon gate in the city’s south. That gate lent its name to the famous 1950 murder trial film by Akira Kurosawa set at the end of the Heian era. In the north of the city, close to the imperial compound, substantial Chinese-style homes housed the nobility. The emperor named his pricey metropolis Heiankyō, meaning “Capital of Peace and Tranquility,” now known simply as Kyōto, meaning “Capital City.” (It retains that name although Tokyo succeeded it as Japan’s capital in 1868).

The Heian period of Japanese history derives its name from the era’s capital city. However, the age earned its moniker’s meaning and was relatively conflict-free until a civil war (the Genpei War that lasted from 1180 to 1185 AD) brought the period to a close. This long peace allowed the court to develop a culture devoted to aesthetic refinement.

For centuries, the aristocratic Fujiwara family dominated not only the politics of the court at Kyoto (marrying into the imperial line and producing many emperors), but also sought to steer the city’s culture, prioritizing art and courtly sophistication. The nobility competed to fund all manner of artworks, gaining prestige from association with the era’s greatest innovators in areas such as calligraphy, theater, song, sculpture, landscaping, puppetry (bunraku), dance, and painting. 

The nobility also produced art themselves. “[T]he best poets were courtiers of middling rank,” noted Princeton University Japanese literature professor Earl Roy Miner. “The Ariwara family (or ‘clan’), the Ono family, and the Ki family produced many of the best poets” despite the Fujiwara family’s greater wealth and influence. The poet Ono no Michikaze (894–966 AD), for example, is credited with founding Japanese-style calligraphy.

It was in Kyoto that the court gradually stopped emulating Chinese society and developed uniquely Japanese traditions. For example, the Japanese Yamato-e painting tradition, noted for its use of aerial perspective and clouds to obscure parts of the depicted scene, competed with the Chinese-inspired kara-e painting tradition.

Perhaps above all, the Heian courtiers prized poetic and literary achievement. According to Amy Vladeck Heinrich, who directs the East Asia Library at Columbia University, “a person’s skill in poetry was a major criterion in determining his or her standing in society, even influencing political positions.” That was for good reason, as poetry played a large role in both courtly romance and diplomacy, with formal poetry exchanges strengthening the ties between potential paramours as well as other kingdoms.

The chief poetic form was the waka, from which the now better-known haiku was derived. Waka consist of thirty-one syllables, arranged in five lines, usually containing five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, respectively. One of the era’s greatest poets was the Kyoto courtier Ki no Tsurayuki (872–945 AD), co-compiler of the first imperially-sponsored poetry anthology and author of the first critical essay on waka. “The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart and flourishes in the countless leaves of words,” he wrote. “Because human beings possess interests of so many kinds it is in poetry that they give expression to the meditations of their hearts in terms of the sights appearing before their eyes and the sounds coming to their ears. Hearing the warbler sing among the blossoms and the frog in his fresh waters — is there any living being not given to song!” (The Japanese word for song can also mean poem). 

A favorite subject for Kyoto’s artists and writers was nature, especially as it changed with the seasons. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art puts it, “Kyoto residents were deeply moved by the subtle seasonal changes that colored the hills and mountains surrounding them and regulated the patterns of daily life.” 

Another recurrent theme was the impermanence of beauty and transience of life. Life in Kyoto was, after all, despite its relative opulence, extremely short. The Japanese historian Kiyoyuki Higuchi has written, “actual living conditions in and around the imperial court were, by today’s standards, unimaginably unsanitary and unnatural. According to books on the history of epidemic disease and medical treatment, aristocratic women, on average, died at age 27 or 28, while men died at age 32 or 33. In addition to the infant mortality rate being extremely high, the rate of women dying at childbirth was also high … Looking at the specific causes of death at the time, tuberculosis (possibly including pneumonia cases) accounted for 54 percent, beriberi for 20 percent, and diseases of the skin (including smallpox) for 10 percent.”

One of the period’s most iconic poems, by Ono no Komachi (c. 825–c. 900 AD), a courtier famed for her beauty, focuses on the fleeting nature of her looks:

花の色は                     Hana no iro wa           The flowers’ color

うつりにけりな          utsuri ni keri na           already faded away    

いたづらに                  itazura ni                     so meaninglessly        

わが身世にふる          waga mi yo ni furu      I’ve aged, passing through the world

ながめせしまに          nagame seshi ma ni   gazing blankly at the rain

The poem exemplifies wordplay, and its multiple puns make it impossible to precisely translate – as the verb furu can mean either “to age” or “to rain,” and the word “nagame” can mean either “lengthy rain” or “vacant gaze.”

When Kyoto was founded, Japanese was usually written using the Chinese writing system, which was not ideal. Chinese characters could not easily convey aspects of the Japanese language that were not present in Chinese. But in the 9th century, in Kyoto, the court women–discouraged from studying Chinese–developed a simplified phonetic syllabary writing system better suited to the nuances of the Japanese language. Their system, hiragana, not only helped to spread female literacy but gave writers far more flexibility and resulted in much of the best writing of the era being done by women. Today, Japanese is written using a combination of Chinese characters (kanji), hiragana, and katakana (another simplified syllabary developed by monks).

Perhaps the best example of the feminine influence on Heian-period Japanese literature is the competition between two of Emperor Ichijō’s (980–1011 AD) wives, Empress Teishi (977–1001 AD) and Empress Shōshi (988–1074 AD), who each sought to outdo the other and place her own son on the throne. They fought not with violence but with the arts: each tried to fill her household with superior poets and artists, thus heightening her relative prestige at court. 

These dueling empresses brought about a literary rivalry for the ages between two noblewomen in their service, who went by the pen names Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–c. 1025 AD) and Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978–c. 1014 AD). Shōnagon was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi, and Murasaki was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi. Each may have been summoned to serve her respective empress specifically because of her literary talent.

In the year 1002, Shōnagon completed The Pillow Book, a compilation of poetry, observations, and musings now deemed a masterpiece of classical Japanese literature and among the best sources of information on Heian court life. Murasaki fired back with a masterpiece of her own and wrote scathing critiques of Shōnagon’s writing and personality. By the year 1008, at least part of Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji was in circulation among Kyoto’s aristocracy.

The Tale of Genji, which chronicles the youth, romances, and eventual death of a handsome and frequently lovestruck prince, is often considered the world’s first novel. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that The Tale of Genji remains “the finest work not only of the Heian period but of all Japanese literature and merits being called the first important novel written anywhere in the world.” 

The Tale of Genji contains many of the elements that define novels to this day: it was a lengthy prose fiction piece with a central character and minor characters, narrative events, parallel plots, and, of course, conflict. The novel also features around 800 waka, which the characters often use to communicate. The story became an immediate hit among the nobility, inspiring numerous paintings of the novel’s scenes. 

While the novel’s focus is an idealized vision of courtly love, it also contains untimely deaths and other unpleasant details that would have been all too familiar to Kyoto’s courtiers. For example, there is no mention of bathing in The Tale of Genji, which sadly reflected Kyoto’s state of hygiene. As Higuchi points out:

[T]he custom of bathing was not widespread among the nobility of that time … Although beyond the imagination of people today, if a Heian noblewoman were to approach you, her body odor would likely be powerful. Moreover, whenever they caught colds, they would chew on raw garlic, increasing the odor level even more. A passage in Genji clearly illustrates this point: a woman writing a reply to a man asks that he please not stop by tonight since she reeks from eating garlic.

Kyoto’s greatest literary feud had a decisive victor. Shōnagon remains relatively unknown outside of Japan, and the empress she served died in childbirth in her early twenties. Murasaki’s writing has gone down in history, and the empress she served lived to see two of her sons become emperors. Today, an entire museum dedicated to The Tale of Genji stands in Uji just outside Kyoto.

The Heian period came to a close with the rise of samurai (hereditary military nobility) culture, and the de facto rulership of Japan transferred from Kyoto’s refined albeit unbathed courtiers to warring military generals called shogun.

To this day, the Japanese Imperial family still runs an annual poetry-writing contest. But whereas in the Heian era, typically only the nobility and monks had the time and education to compose poetry or prose, today, amateur writing is a popular pastime throughout Japan and the rest of the developed world.

Kyoto, Japan old town skyline in the Higashiyama District in the afternoon
Kyoto, Japan old town skyline in the Higashiyama District in the afternoon.

Many centuries after Kyoto’s era of literary brilliance, in 1905, the American professor of English Selden Lincoln Whitcomb opined, “The novel is the most comprehensive form of representative art that man has discovered.” For being at the center of the novel’s invention, a turning point in the history of the literary arts, and its numerous other achievements in art and poetry, Heian-era Kyoto is rightly our thirty-fourth Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Education & Literacy

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 14: Johannes Gutenberg

Introducing the man who invented the first metal movable-type printing press, Johannes Gutenberg.

Today marks the 14th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 13th part of this series here.

Our 14th Hero of Progress is Johannes Gutenberg, a 15th century German goldsmith and inventor, who created the first metal movable-type printing press. Gutenberg’s inventions inlcuded a process for mass-producing movable type, the use of oil-based ink for printing books, adjustable molds, mechanical movable type and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of that time.

Gutenberg’s ideas started a printing revolution, which greatly improved the spread of information. The printing press helped to fuel the later part of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, thus setting the stage for the start of the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century.

Relatively little is known about Gutenberg’s early life. It is believed he was born sometime between 1394 and 1404 in the city of Mainz, the Holy Roman Empire (today’s Germany). We do know that Gutenberg was born into a wealthy patrician merchant family and he grew up learning the trade of goldsmithing.

In 1411, the Gutenbergs were exiled from Mainz following an uprising against the patrician class. We don’t know much about Gutenberg’s life over the following fifteen years, but a letter written by him in 1434 indicates he was living in Strasbourg (today’s France). Moreover, legal records from that same year indicate that he was a goldsmith and a member of the Strasbourg militia.

Whilst in Strasbourg, Gutenberg created metal hand mirrors that pilgrims bought and used when visiting holy sites (it was thought hand mirrors could capture the holy light from religious relics). Gutenberg’s metal working skills proved useful when he developed the metal movable-type used in the printing press.

In 1439, Gutenberg encountered financial problems. Unable to placate his investors, Gutenberg is said to have shared a “secret” with them. It is speculated that the secret was a much-improved process of printing. A year later, Gutenberg supposedly declared that he had perfected the art of printing. That said, a workable prototype of his printing press remained a long way off.

In 1448, Gutenberg moved back to Mainz. With the help of a loan from his brother-in-law, Arnold Gelthus, he was able to build an operating printing press in 1450. A working press enabled Gutenberg to convince Johann Fust, a wealthy moneylender, to lend him more capital to fund further refinement of the printing process. Peter Schöffer, Fust’s son-in-law, also joined the enterprise and it is likely that Schöffer designed some of the press’ first typefaces.

It is widely accepted that Gutenberg had two presses, one for lucrative commercial texts, and another reserved for printing the Bible. In 1455, the first 180 copies of The Gutenberg Bible were completed. However, in the same year, Fust sued Gutenberg and demanded his money back, accusing Gutenberg of the misallocation of funds. The court ruled in favor of Fust, which gave him possession of the printing workshop and half of all the printed Bibles.

The court’s ruling left Gutenberg effectively bankrupt. Undeterred, Guttenberg managed to open a small printing shop in Bamberg (Bavaria) in 1459, where he continued printing Bibles. In 1465, Prince Archbishop of Mainz recognized Gutenberg’s accomplishments by naming him a Hofmann or a gentleman of the court. That meant that until his death in 1468, Gutenberg could live comfortably on the court’s large annual stipend.

Gutenberg’s innovation quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond. That meant that books and pamphlets became much cheaper and more easily accessible. The deluge of printed texts helped to increase literacy rates throughout the continent. Medical, scientific and technical knowledge proliferated, improving the lives of millions. Philosophical, religious and political treatises abounded. The monopolistic controls that guilds and nobility held over Europe’s economic and social life for centuries were broken. It is for those reasons that Johannes Gutenberg is our 14th Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Education & Literacy

Improving Africa's Education System

Liberia's education system is both increasingly effective and affordable.

Improving educational standards in Africa

Great strides have been made on many fronts when it comes to global education. In 2000 the average child went to school for 7 years. By 2010 it was over 8 years. Literacy rates have gone up from 76 percent to 81 percent over the same period. Millions of children are in school and learning. But, clearly, more progress is needed. Over 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Globally, 330 million children are in school, but they are not learning. Some 263 million children are not in school at all.

Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly deficient when it comes to provision of quality education. But innovative policies are spreading throughout the continent, with dramatic effect. Liberia, for example, is the fourth poorest country in the world and has a literacy rate of less than 50 percent. The majority of children are out of school, with a 43 percent net attendance ratio according to UNICEF, indicating the percentage of those eligible to attend primary school, and who actually do so within that group.

So, rather than settle for incremental improvements, the country is trying to leapfrog forward. A few years ago, a public private partnership between the Ministry of Education and non state operators saw the establishment of seven independent school providers, who are running a small number of state elementary schools. These partners are a mix of non-profit and for-profit outfits.

One of the seven school operators helping Liberia is Bridge. Bridge equips local teachers with quality lesson plans via a digital e-reader device. These are given to every teacher working in a school run by Bridge. Teachers are following the digital lesson guides and systematically working their way through the local Liberian national curriculum. The technology enables Bridge staff in Monrovia to monitor the progress of children’s learning, check student and teacher attendance, and give highly accurate reports of what’s happening in the classroom to the Ministry of Education. Parents and teachers up and down the country have been embracing this new approach and are seeing dramatic changes in the speed, quantity and quality of learning.

A gold standard independent evaluation of the program by the Centre for Global Development and Innovations Poverty Action showed that schools being used to trial the new policies had seen learning improvements of 60 percent in a single academic year. That’s the average across all seven school operators. At Bridge public schools, the study showed, students learnt twice as fast as their peers in neighborhood schools. The focus on learning outcomes rather than access as a success benchmark is a notable shift taking place in the global education eco-system and one that resonates in Liberia.

These schools have experienced such an acceleration in learning that the newly elected government has given the go-ahead for the pilot program to continue into the next academic year with a few modifications. As the education minister Professor Ansu D.Sonii says, it will ensure that “the significant learning gains delivered under the program could be maintained.”

More than that, the Liberian Ministry for Education is already starting to roll-out across the whole education system some of the policies that have been tested successfully in the pilot program, like a longer school day. At present, normal government elementary schools only run until noon. But from next academic year they will continue until 3pm, as in the schools run by the program partners. The pilot program has shown that this extended day really is having a positive impact.

So far these improvements to basic education have cost the Liberian government very little – generally having relied on the commitment of generous donors for financing. For example, Bridge’s work in Liberia has cost the government $0 U.S. dollars over the last two years. The Government has an aspiration of providing quality education to every child for $100 a year by 2020 – currently they spend $50 – although not all providers receive this subsidy.

My view is that this innovative approach, integrating the private sector and others, has enabled the rapid improvement to Liberia’s education system and is both increasingly effective and affordable.

Even in the most remote corner of Liberia, children who are refugees from Ivory Coast are getting the same free, high quality learning as those in the capital Monrovia. Because Bridge gives every teacher an e-reader, they are all able to download the lesson guides and they are all supported by local teacher trainers. The remoteness of the school has no impact of the quality of the teaching or the materials. This is good news for Liberia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa as it shows that it is possible for governments with very small education budgets to make huge learning gains quickly that directly impact children. The combination of brave new education policies plus high quality support through a PPP approach shows that the tide is against the learning crisis in Liberia.

The public in the USA agrees that this novel approach is a great way to quickly improve education in parts of the world that struggle to run enough quality schools. According to the public survey organization ONE Poll, three-quarters of the American public surveyed believe there should be more education public-private partnerships in developing countries. The same proportion of Americans also agree that Bridge International Academies are good for children. 

The current and previous Liberian governments both deserve high praise for their leadership in working to deliver transformative education opportunities for children using non state actors and innovative policies. Other governments across the continent should take note of Liberia’s success story and such a fast, effective and low-cost way to improve education for children who have the potential to change the world.