Can Humanity Forget What It Knows?nCivilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation,nby the gossamer strand of memory. If only onencohort of mothers and fathers fails to convey to its childrennwhat it has learned from its parents, then the great chain ofnlearning and wisdom snaps. If the guardians of humannknowledge stumble only one time, in their fall collapses thenentire edifice of knowledge and understanding. More important,ntherefore, than finding new things is sifting andnrefining the received truths. And the generation that will gondown through time bearing the burden of disgrace is not thenone that has said nothing new — for not much new marksnthe mind of any age—but the one that has not said what isntrue. These self-evident truths concerning the continuity ofncivilization pertain not only to wisdom, which philosophynand religion preserve. They address much more concretenmatters than the wise conduct of affairs. There are thingsnthat we know because of the hard work of people who havencome before, knowledge that we have on account of othernpeople’s trial and error. And that is knowledge that alsonhangs in the balance from age to age, knowledge that we cannand do forget, with awful consequences for those who willncome after us, to whom we are answerable.nThe simple fact is that we either remember or recapitulatenthe work of finding out — one or the other. And now, withnfive thousand years of recorded science, and philosophy,nJacob Neusner is a graduate research professor of religiousnstudies at the University of South Florida, Tampa.nby Jacob Neusnernmathematics, history and social science, literature and musicnand art, if we lose it all, we probably shall never regain whatnis gone. It would be too much work, require resources ofntime and intellect not likely to come to hand. Lest mynmeaning be lost in abstraction, let me give a concrete case.nWhen the turret of the battleship Iowa blew up, peoplencould not repair it. The reason is that the materials andntechnological know-how to repair the guns, available whennthe ship was built during World War II, were lost beyondnrecovery. That is what I mean when I say civilization hangsnsuspended by fragile strands indeed. So too, when peoplendecided to resume construction of the Cathedral of St. Johnnthe Divine in New York City, it was discovered that only anfew stone masons were left in the world who could work thengiant blocks from which a cathedral is built; they could trainnyoung apprentices, or the work would not be done. Languagesntoo have come and gone; someone once told me ofnmeeting the last person in the world who spoke Cornish as annative language, and linguists make haste to preserve what isnabout to be lost as an example of the potentialities ofnintelligible speech.nI owe this point to a biologist at Rutgers University, DavidnEhrenfeld, writing in Orion (Autumn 1989), who arguesnthat “loss of knowledge and skills is now a big problem innour universities.” It is a problem, he maintains, not only innthe humanities, which we know are dying, but in the naturalnsciences. His case in point is one that surprised me. He says,n”We are on the verge of losing our ability to tell one plant ornnnSEPTEMBER 1991/19n