I’ve had a storied academic history. As a kid, I was always told about my ‘potential’. When shifting from elementary to high school, I applied to a ‘mini school’ for smart kids and was denied.. probably for not being smart enough. I went to the high school that the rest of my friends went to and by the next grade, had enrolled in their advanced program. My grades were generally below average and might have had something to do with my reluctance to study for anything. I was the type who went to class, paid attention, and participated… and that was usually enough to get by. By grade 12, I was down to 2 advanced courses, history and biology. The wager was that it would be easier to get into university with good grades from the standard classes than average grades from advanced classes. The bet paid off as I averaged mid 80s, and I was headed to university.
In my first year of university, I barely managed to stay off academic probation with a GPA of 1.8. The work wasn’t difficult, I just wasn’t that interested. There were certain courses that I did quite well in, like business or psychology, but then there were others like calculus that I failed twice after skipping most of the classes, doing none of the homework, and barely studying for the exams. I left university after my second year for a combination of reasons, including: a lack of funds, a lack of interest, a lack of focus, a bar fight, and a soured relationship with the university. When I got home that summer, I ended up making a fair bit of money.. enough to postpone any thoughts of finishing school. Fortunately or unfortunately, that job showed me that business is what I wanted to do, and I knew that getting a business degree was a good place to start. So I returned to school with a renewed interest after a couple years. With a renewed focus, I performed accordingly. I took business and psychology courses exclusively and was among the top of my class when we graduated. That included taking that calculus course on my own during a summer semester and finishing with a 90+.
During that time, I’ve learned a great deal. Including that being knowledgeable and performing well in academics are not the same thing. During my first two years, I set an unofficial record for fewest classes attended and still managed to finish with a GPA in the 2.5 range. It wasn’t because I was smart, I was because I knew how to study and how to test. For most classes, I could skip the lectures and course readings, and simply memorize the chapter summaries and vocabulary. It left gaps but with most tests being multiple choice, a bit of analysis and probability would usually get you in the 70s. Reflecting on it now, most of these courses relied heavily on memory. I learned to memorize things back in high school for biology but learned how to apply those skills elsewhere. Unfortunately, things that I memorized while cramming for an exam were almost always lost just as quick. Maybe not entirely, but the strategy wasn’t designed around long-term retention.
Perhaps there’s some rhyme and reason to things which are easy to remember and things which aren’t. If you learn a detail and know where it fits in your larger understanding of things and the variety of things it connects to, it’s easy to remember. If you’re just looking to memorize a list of details that’s isolated from your core understanding of the world, not so easy.
It would be interesting to see how much of the modern curriculum is based in memorization and I wonder if enough attention is paid to establishing the foundation for these facts to be absorbed more easily. Either way, I can’t help but think that memorization is going the way of long division. There was a point when I was a kid where elementary school teachers would tell me about how important it was to know how to do long arithmetic. Curious about why this was valuable when we had calculators, I had to ask. They would say something to the effect of, what happens when you don’t have a calculator? Thinking back on it now, I can’t say I’ve ever found myself in a situation where I needed to do math and didn’t have access to a calculator. I haven’t a clue how to do long division anymore and I’ve never once felt at a loss for it.
I think we’re evolving. For decades, if not centuries, if not millennia… people with remarkable memories were among the most capable individuals. They had the ability to draw from a larger database of knowledge than most of their peers, and as long as they filled it with useful things, they were remarkably useful. Once the written word and the printing press came along, it wasn’t just about your memory, but your ability to find good information worth memorizing. But here, in the information age, everything has changed.
Today, I walk around with a magical device in my pocket which provides me with a portal to 99.9% of all knowledge within the known universe. Within this portal exists search engines which help me locate the information I’m looking for. Within the results of those search engines exists all kinds of information, waiting to be understood and converted to knowledge. And these magical devices are available to just about anyone. This has revolutionized the way we gather and access what we need to know. And I don’t think we fully appreciate that just yet.
How much of a school’s curriculum is teaching kids what to think? How many of us were trained in the art of memorizing facts to be repeated at a later date, preferably when someone has asked asked a question to which that fact is an appropriate answer? Like while watching Jeopardy. That’s how to look smart isn’t it?. But what if we took the best (human) Jeopardy player of all time and matched them up against an average 15 year old with a laptop, internet connection, and a solid grasp of google? The 15 year old might be a bit slower but beyond that, I’d probably bet on the 15 year old. Without a doubt, the knowledge contained within Wikipedia, let alone the entirety of the internet would be considerably more vast and detailed than what any single mind could retain. Thinking about it differently, our collective digital brain represents just about all of human knowledge, far more than any one person could ever compete with.
Where a single mind can still compete quite effectively though, is with recalling that information quickly. Someone asks you your birthday, you can spit it back out almost immediately. If someone asks you when Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is, good chance you’ll need a few seconds on google. But in a practical world, when does one need to recall specific details of this nature in less than a few seconds? Is it possible that in this practical world, the skill of being able to find new information and understand it quickly becomes more valuable?
I’m watching the world tear itself apart right now and I can’t help but ask myself why and try to understand what I’m seeing. Something that I’ve observed, is that many people seem to be done learning. Old people can’t be bothered to learn how new technology works while young people can’t be bothered to learn history. Men won’t take the time to learn about the struggles that women go through while women won’t take the time to learn about the struggles that men go through. The religious crowd isn’t interested in learning new perspectives while the atheist crowd isn’t interested in learning about why people still seek religion. Hedge fund managers aren’t interested in learning about social impact and social justice warriors aren’t interested in learning about capitalism. Politicians aren’t interested in learning how to serve the people while the general population isn’t interested in learning how the government works. With access to more information than we’ve ever had, why have so many of us decided to stop learning?
I suspect that the search engine will go down as one of the most remarkable tools ever created by humans.. but it just wasn’t enough. If you do a google search for Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and get 5 different results on the first page, what then? Well hopefully you had memorized that date from American History class back in middle school. But if you hadn’t, that’s when you need to apply your skills of critical analysis, research, pattern recognition, and logic. You know… learning. But what if you don’t have those skills? I don’t remember any classes in school called logic or critical analysis. I don’t even remember anyone even offering detailed explanations on either.
I think that for a long time, academia has been about the memorization of facts which were deemed historic and relevant, in the hopes of creating a framework of future understanding. They were teaching us what they thought we should know. The problem with that though, is that the people who decided which facts were historic and relevant had their own biases and misunderstandings. Even worse, because of how they were presented, these frameworks became rigid. Within a rigid framework, it becomes more difficult to evolve and adapt to new environments. Also within these frameworks, people seem more likely to reinforce the walls than to question how their foundation was built.
What this all seems to boil down to for me is that many of us have either lost our sense of curiosity, or lack the tools to explore it. There’s no shortage of people who would like to tell us what to think or how to feel, but without an ability to explore it ourselves, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? If we fall into the habit of trusting people because we like what they’re saying, all we’ve done is fallen into an echo chamber.. a place where curiosity and learning is carefully restricted to reinforce an existing perspective. How do we get around all this? The answer seems to always be the same… education.
I think we need to revolutionize our approach to education and the first step will be supporting a child’s innate sense of curiosity with the tools to learn. Teach them everything we know that will help them discover the world for themselves and let them choose their own path. I don’t think it benefits anyone to have teachers reciting facts to groups of students, with the hope that they’re listening, will retain the information, and will then find it useful some day. What if teachers became facilitators which helped students develop the skills which in turn, helped them form their own understanding of the universe. Give them the compass of truth and reality, give them the tools of critical analysis, debate, logic, and research, and set them off on their own adventures. Prepare them to rise above the obstacles we couldn’t see beyond… and all that good stuff.
It’s not about teaching people what to think, it’s about teaching them how to learn.