What Plato Said About Writing

The role of microcomputers in curriculum and instruction has been debated since they first arrived in schools; some advocate for quick adoption of every new tool while others advocate for avoiding digital technology altogether. Disparate perceptions of emerging information technologies among educators is not a new phenomenon. In his 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick noted that Plato criticized those who sought to teach writing when he observed, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (p 30). The wisdom of Plato did not require writing.  Gleick goes on to quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, who commented on preliterate cultures (those that lack writing), “There was no method: that is to say, no planting of knowledge by itself, apart from weeds and common plants of error and conjecture” (p. 49). For Hobbes, no writing meant no wisdom. In the time between Plato and Hobbes, writing expanded throughout society, it disrupted patterns of information use, and redefined what it meant to be “educated.” Plato perceived writing as a degradation of human skills; so he rejected the emerging information technology and recommended that others reject it as well. In this, Plato lost. We can predict similar loss for those who advocate we avoid the technologies emerging today.


Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon.