Knowledge, Education, and Mere Information

I’ve heard or read innumerable times, including at least once in the comments to this blog, that younger Americans don’t need to learn as much as older generations did because the young folks can find information quickly on the web. I’m certain that they can find “information” quickly, but that argument ignores a number of basic points.

The first is the assumption that these younger Americans will always have instant access to the web, via their Iphones or Blackberries or whatever. Perhaps, but there are many times and places where accessing those devices is difficult, if not dangerous, or impossible. It can also be time-consuming, particularly if the young American in question doesn’t know very much, especially since, in more complex areas of learning and life, a wider knowledge base is necessary in order to know what to look up and how to apply such information. My wife has watched scores of supposedly intelligent students — they tested well — have great difficulty in “looking up” simple quotations about musical subjects. Why? Because their subject matter vocabularies didn’t contain enough synonyms and similar terms, and because computers only search for what you ask for, not everything that you should have asked for, had you known more. The more complex the subject, the greater this problem becomes.

The second problem is that trying to evaluate a mass of newly acquired information leads to greater mistakes than if the acquirer already has a knowledge base and is merely updating that knowledge.

Third is the fact that operating on an “I can look it up basis” tends to postpone dealing with problems until the last moment. In turn, planning skills atrophy, a fact to which all too many college professors and supervisors of recent graduates can testify.

Fourth, the “look it up attitude” does not distinguish between discrete bits of information and knowledge. For example, one blog commenter made the point that much of the information handed out by teachers and much of the required reading was “useless.” In the context of the comment, “useless” translated into “it wasn’t on the test.” Speaking as a former college instructor, I have to point out that only a fraction of the material that should be learned in a college-level course could ever be tested for, even if every class period were devoted solely to testing. These days, all too many college professors are either giving up or over-testing in response to a student — and societal — attitude that seems all too often to say, “It’s not important to learn anything except to pass tests.” In addition, tests that merely require regurgitation of information or the plugging of values into formulae do nothing to enhance thinking and real-life problem solving. In short, what’s overlooked by all those who rely on tests is that test results do not equate to education, nor do they build a wider professional knowledge base for the student.

Fifth, without a personal knowledge base, how can you evaluate the accuracy of the information you’re seeking? With every day the amount of information available increases, and with wider access the amount of misinformation increases — to the point where a substantial amount of erroneous information is being promulgated on subjects where the accuracy has been scientifically established without any doubt — such as in the case of vaccinations, as I noted earlier. Without a personal knowledge base, either a greater amount of cross-checking is required, which takes time, or more errors will likely result.

Sixth, as noted in earlier blogs, continual reliance on instant information access dulls memory skills, and there are many, many occupations where reliance on instant “outside” information is not feasible and could be fatal. Pilots have to remember air controller instructions and procedures. Paramedics need to know emergency medical procedures cold. While rote memorization is not usually required in such occupations, a good memory is vital if one is to learn the skills to be highly professional… and looking up everything doesn’t help develop memory or skills.

Finally, lack of a broad knowledge and information base, one firmly anchored within one’s own skull, leads to narrow-mindedness and contributes to the ongoing societal fragmentation already being accelerated by our “bias-reinforcing” electronic technology.

But… of course, you can always ignore these points and look “it” up — if you can figure out how to get the precise information you need and whether it’s accurate, if you have the time to assimilate it… and if you can remember it long enough to use it — but then, you can just plug it into the Iphone… and hope you’ve got access and sufficient battery power.

2 thoughts on “Knowledge, Education, and Mere Information”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    A counterpoint:

    ONE OF Einstein's colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up. "You don't remember your own number?" the man asked, startled.

    "No," Einstein answered. "Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?"

  2. Iron Sparrow says:

    Oh, haha. I didn't mean to disparage Mr. Modesitt's point that information is useless without the education/experience to use it. I think Einstein would be delighted with the amount of information quickly available to him in today's world. And as you said, he would actually know how to use it.

    From what I understand, Mr. Modesitt has a problem with the way students approach school and education in general. I don't necessarily disagree with that. In fact, I'd love to see apprenticeships make a comeback. There's a large percentage of the population whose method for learning new information is completely at odds with the current school system.

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