Joanne Jacobs posted about a recent study that suggests “there is less need to remember” because people are outsourcing memory to the Internet. This reminded me of the irony in Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger’s disagreement with this notion that “the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary“. In writing this, Sanger appears to be channeling Daniel Willingham, William Klemm and other scientists who support the idea that a rich base of knowledge is the foundation for critical thinking and creative problem solving.
I like the way Jacobs explained it.
The more you know, the easier it is to seek out new information, evaluate it and do something with it. And remember it.
Here is Sanger’s take.
Whenever I encounter yet another instance of educationists’ arguments against “memorizing,” the following rather abstract yet simple thought springs to my philosopher’s mind: Surely the only way to know something is to have memorized it. How can I be said to know something that I do not remember? So being opposed to memorizing has always sounded to me like being opposed to knowledge. I realize this argument likely seems glib. The thing educationists object to, of course, is not the remembering or even the memorizing but rather the memorizing by rote — that is, by dull repetition and often without experience or understanding.
In a December 2008 interview, Don Tapscott, a popular writer on the subject of the Internet and society, argued that the Internet is now “the fountain of knowledge” and that students need not memorize particular facts such as historical dates. …This view is common enough among the Wikipedia users I have come across; they sometimes declare that since the free online encyclopedia is so huge and easy to use, they feel less pressure to commit “trivia” to memory….
But to claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge. Finding out a fact about a topic with a search in Wolfram Alpha, for example, is very different indeed from knowing about and understanding the topic. Having a well-understood fact ready to recall is far different from merely getting an unfamiliar answer to a question. Reading a few sentences in Wikipedia about some theories on the causes of the Great Depression does not mean that one thereby knows or understands this topic. Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.
Moreover, if you read an answer to a question, you usually need fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer….
To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics. To return to my “glib” argument, surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.
(This is an update of a previous post: Wikipedia co-founder argues for the importance of ‘memorizing facts’)