I recently saw a Stephan Pastis strip (gocomics.com, March 1, 2015 ) in which Willy the Younger tries to make sense of why he’s needs to remember historical facts and Rat answers all the questions the kid was asked by simply Googling them. The punchline is that technology moves on and these quaint old ideas of memorizing facts are no longer relevant.
Well, I feel to compelled to speak up. As a fellow cartoonist, I totally see the gag and it’s a hard one to resist. Easy pickings. But the fact is that Rat is absolutely wrong (not an uncommon occurrence for him). And his argument is one that’s not at all unheard of in the wide world.
Why do I suggest it’s wrong? Do I really feel that knowing Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is a critical piece of information for anyone trying to navigate through the world’s stormy seas? That knowing it’s 92 and not 93 or 91 really makes a difference?
Of course not. Thinking that that’s the point of the exercise is missing the forest for the trees. The reason we’re asked to learn facts is to give us the tiny bits of information without which we can’t attempt critical thinking. It’s a well known biological fact that people who have been actively engaged intellectually have brains with decidedly more complex features than those who haven’t. By experiencing more “stuff” our brains get fitter. And the win from the added complexity is that it’s MUCH easier for insights to occur. When you only know one or two facts, trying to make predictions or form hypotheses is difficult, if not impossible. But when you know X and Y and Z and even R, then you can realize that corollary 1 from X, when mixed with the likely outcomes of Y, means that V is possible. Realizations that are a complete mystery to someone who knew nothing of Y, Z or R at the start.
Google cannot help with this. To make intuitive leaps, all the information has to be in YOUR brain so that YOUR brain can connect the dots. If they’re stored away in Google, all your brain can do is hunt and pick in a desultory manner until distracted by a nice YouTube vid. It's those countless little bits of knowledge all stored away in odd little nooks and crannies of your big ball of fat that do the magic.
The more you know, the more you CAN know. Knowledge is its own reward in that it makes YOUR brain a more formidable opponent. And this isn’t even taking into account the fact that no good teacher introduces places and dates and names just “because”. They do it so the student can start to form their own picture of the world. What else was going on when Columbus sailed? Well, if you know WHEN he sailed, then you can immediately start to form some conclusions when you see what was happening in Spain in 1487 or in Portugal in 1490. Your brain realizes there’s a time connection and can move on from there.
So learn your history Willy. Just maybe, it’ll help you avoid repeating it.
(Included Crowtoon first appeared in Barron's magazine, April 14, 2014)
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