I’m going back through The Invention of Air book by Steven Johnson and am trying to air-covercollect my thoughts a bit. Air documents the life and work of Joseph Priestly – a British minister, scientist and political thinker – who was a friend and influential contemporary of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Priestly is credited with “discovering” oxygen and with establishing ideas that led to the concept of ecosystems. He was also influential in the political thinking of Jefferson and other American Founding Fathers.

Johnson does a great job of tying together Priestly’s three arenas of religion, science and politics and documents reasons why he was so successful.

We tend to think of money encouraging innovation because it functions as an incentive, and indeed one of the legacies of the coal-powered economic revolution of the 18th century is that it created scientific-industrial marketplace where good ideas could be rewarded with immense fortunes.

But accumulated wealth played almost the opposite role in most Enlightenment-era science: it allowed people like Joseph Priestly to pursue scientific breakthroughs without the promise for financial reward. And the lack of a monetary incentive made it easier for Priestly and (others) to share their ideas as freely as they did.

While there was some intellectual competition (especially between English and French thinkers), much of 18th century research was gladly shared and discussed openly without the desire to benefit financially. It’s different today.

Or is it?

Priestly in 1763

Priestly in 1763

I’m seeing more and more of the kinds of stuff out there that I think Priestly and other Enlightenment thinkers would recognize. Open source software being shared world wide, cloud computing, MIT making their course content available to anyone, social networks of all kinds, Creative Commons licensing, SlideShare, Flickr, musical groups sharing their work.

What I don’t see as much is educators thinking and acting like this. I think it’s getting better. More teachers are becoming Priestly clones. They realize that sharing ideas, lesson plans and resources have the power to benefit all of us.

But I still run into teachers who hoard their best stuff and who find it difficult working with others. What’s the best way to encourage Priestly’s kind of thinking among teachers?

Perhaps, in a way, it just seems too un-American.  The United States is known for its capitalist economics – making more money than everyone else is the American Way. It’s always been “all about me” and getting ahead.

Johnson describes what the opposite view might look like:

. . . expose as many ideas as possible to as many people as possible and the system will eventually gravitate towards truth and consensus.

And quotes Priestly:

The only method of attaining a truly valuable agreement is to promote the most perfect freedom of thinking and acting . . . Truth will prevail and that then a rational, firm and truly valuable union will take place.

Johnson goes on later and talks about four “institutional models of idea production.”

Two of them were just beginning to develop during the 1700s and so were new to Priestly:

  • private businesses and corporations (think Apple)
  • public funded institutions such as universities and research hospitals

And two that he was very familiar with:

  • the solo, free agent inventor (think Benjamin Franklin)
  • a loosely connected, small “society” of intellectual allies with different fields of expertise supporting one another

Johnson suggests that the last two have mostly disappeared while the first two have come to dominate current idea generation and dissemination.

Perhaps one of the things that we can do to increase the sharing of ideas and resources among educators is to use 21st century tools together and 18th century idea gemeration methods. The current Web 2.0 edu craze is the idea of creating PLNs – Personal Learning Networks – through the use of things like Plurk, Twitter and Ning.

Without realizing it, we’re stepping back into the shoes of thinkers like Priestly who were all about open source ideas.

People say that there is no hope for the American educational system. I’m not so sure. Maybe all it will take is to become more old-fashioned in our thinking.