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In defense of knowing facts

May 28, 2009 _ 09:00 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Since I started working at Digital Nation, I've noticed an increasing number of voices suggesting that the ability to memorize and recite facts is no longer valuable. The idea is that the Internet has made data so accessible that we can rely on computers to remember any details we need, leaving valuable space in our brains for more creative activities like critical thinking. If we have to obtain a fact, all we need to know is where and how to find it. Peter Suderman recently wrote at The American Scene:

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it's not making us stupid. Instead, it's changing the way we're smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it's not what you know -- it's what you know you can access, and cross reference.
In other words, books taught us to think like they do -- as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does -- as a tool for recall and connection. We won't be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we'll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

This is a common theme amongst some education reformists, such as Mark Prensky, who consider memorizing facts a relic of the last century. In a 2008 op-ed called "Using Cell Phones for Exams" [PDF], Prensky wrote:

The attitude that we should know as many facts as possible, and hold in our heads every trivial piece of information we might need to use in our lives was useful in a time when the body of knowledge was much smaller and information was much harder and slower to find. Memorizing phone numbers allowed you to dial faster. Memorizing the multiplication tables saved you the trouble of adding. Memorizing the names of places was helpful when maps were not always available.
But those were, in the words of one 10-year-old, the "olden days." Today's kids store numbers on their phones, use the calculator in the phones to multiply and divide, and, increasingly, tell the time from the phones as well. This frees their mind, ideally, to think of more important things than what is increasing known as "trivia" - IF they are taught to do so, and IF they are evaluated on that ability, rather than on what they have memorized.

Now, I may be a little biased. I attend a trivia contest on a weekly basis, and I relish the ability to recall obscure information. But I believe there is still value in knowing facts in everyday situations, as well.

It's true that it's now easier than ever for amateurs to look up information on topics they're curious about and develop broad, indexed knowledge on a vast array of subjects. This assumes that they have the motivation to consult the Web and the sophistication to select trustworthy sources, but let's assume that they do. Generally, some expert had to write each of those sources that the amateurs look up. This is where reliance on an index of knowledge breaks down. For experts, it doesn't suffice to look everything up. Knowledge is cumulative in many respects, and, if you don't have a solid foundation, it is hard to build anything terribly complex. Treating our brains as an index and relying on computers for the heavy lifting is great for amateur knowledge, but it essentially eliminates the possibility for expert knowledge. And this has any number of negative repercussions. As one of the Suderman's readers points out in the comments:

Would you want a doctor who said, "I can't really remember all those interminable details about body parts and diseases and stuff like that, but that doesn't matter, because I'll have Google on hand when I perform your surgery"?

Perhaps this is a hyperbolic scenario, but, when you think about it, we're all experts in something -- our jobs. Most of us wouldn't last a day on the job if we had to Google each task before performing it. The idea of indexing this knowledge is simply unrealistic. We wouldn't be able to function as a society.

Advocates of outsourcing knowledge frequently deride the requirement of memorizing historical dates in school. And students, too, ask, "Do I have to know that date?" Why would that be useful?" Admittedly, there are many significant historical dates that most people can get by without knowing. But surely there are some dates that should be known. The dates of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War and civil rights movement provide the backdrop for the civic knowledge required to function in our democracy. So, where do you draw the line? If you had to look up these types of dates, you'd never make it to the level of deep knowledge or discussion that comes easily when you remember them in your brain.

Unfortunately, that deep knowledge appears to be lacking, as 71 percent of American adults failed a 2008 civics test on American history and institutions conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Similarly, only 27 percent of twelfth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in a 2006 civics assessment conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

This reminds me of when I wrote papers in elementary school. I didn't have an expansive vocabulary, so I would frequently turn to the thesaurus and find just the word I thought I was looking for. But I ended up misusing many of these words because I hadn't actually read them in context before. Sure, I could then also look them up in the dictionary, but if you haven't seen a word used properly by someone with an excellent command of language, you won't tend to use it terribly well.

In the end, I think the mistake these futurists make is they assume that accessibility of knowledge and memorized knowledge must have an inverse relationship. But this is surely not the case! I can use Google to learn about anything, even subjects that I'm passionate for, such as journalism. But this doesn't imply I need to know less about journalism. If anything, it means I can and should learn more. The indexing of knowledge is useful for my amateur interests, and it happens naturally through the process of searching. But, even then, why not remember if I can?

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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