There are only two states of mind that precede learning, and neither is particularly pleasant. Before you learn something, you are either ignorant or confused; or, put differently, before you get answers you have to question what you know. There were two huge events in the first two centuries of the first economy that created mass confusion and revealed great ignorance, two events that made Europeans question what they knew and opened them up to the Renaissance.
The Black Death, which began in 1348, and the discovery of America created tragedy, hope and cognitive dissonance. Try for a moment to imagine the incessant, near apocalyptic coverage today’s media would give to the discovery of a “new world” populated with people with many of the same social structures as us and yet very different rituals and behaviors, much less a pandemic that killed nearly a third of the population. Imagine what absurd speculation we’d hear on talk shows, the banter between “experts” whose expertise in no way prepared them for this, and the callers who began to question everything. These two events were like gales of destructive creation, destroying so much of what Europeans believed and opening them up to the new.
Saul Alinsky writes that someone pushing for social change will rarely have a majority on his side. Change is too uncertain and people are busy with their own lives. The best one can do is to get the majority feeling like the status quo is so bad that they won’t work to defend it. When that happens, you can make changes. In a sense, the Black Death did at least that, probably not just making Europeans feel ambivalent about the status quo but actually making them ready to actively change it.