Shields and Spears: Hoarding Knowledge in Modern Times

spear shield Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

The international investigation on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Beijing was poorly managed, said Dr. Don J. Wyatt in his keynote address, “The Spear and Shield of Knowledge,” at Bowdoin’s 2014 Kemp Symposium. China and other countries were mystifyingly slow to contribute their technology to the search – but Wyatt believes he knows why.

A professor of history at Middlebury College specializing in Chinese history and philosophy, Wyatt explained that China’s guarded role in the plane search is rooted in the ancient past.

He described the country’s protectionist outlook with regard to historical commodities such as silk and porcelain – products whose technological secrets were kept closely under wraps. To illustrate the danger of taking such secrecy too far, he told an ancient Chinese fable: a dealer in arms claims that his shields are resistant to the thrust of any spear, and his spears sharp enough to penetrate any shield – until eventually, a bystander points out the paradox of this sales pitch. The spear symbolizes the dissemination of knowledge, Wyatt said, while the shield represents its protection – and we shouldn’t expect either one to win out every time.

“If the shield always is allowed to parry the spear, then the advancement of knowledge is rendered null and void,” Wyatt said. While secrets can hold power, in the Flight 370 situation that power was squandered. “Under such circumstances, knowledge fails to benefit its own possessor, and it has no chance of productively enhancing the understanding of those who would seek to possess it.”

The Kemp Symposium, titled “Visions of Reality: Science and Other Means of Seeking Knowledge,” brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to examine the diverse means of creating technical knowledge before and after the birth of modern science. The two-day event was sponsored by the departments of Asian studies, religion, chemistry, earth and oceanographic science, and history, as well as the Robert J. Kemp Lectureship Fund.

Wyatt’s evening speech was followed by a full day of panels by Bowdoin faculty members and colleagues from other institutions. Panel topics included “Keeping Your Ear to the Cosmos: Standards of Validity in the Northern Song (960−1127) Music Reforms” by Leah Zuo, “The Diamond-Winged House Fly: L. B. Alberti’s Equivocal Tribute to Mathematics” by Arielle Saiber, “The Dream of Nuclear Power: History, Technology, and the ‘Quick Fix’” by David Hecht, “Antoine Lavoisier’s Organic Enlightenment” by Meghan Roberts, and “Scholarly intermediaries between the Ottoman Empire and Renaissance Italy” by Robert Morrison.

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