Wikipedia co-founder says we need to memorize things, not just ‘Google it’

by Grace

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’)

3 Comments to “Wikipedia co-founder says we need to memorize things, not just ‘Google it’”

  1. You need fairly substantial background knowledge, yes, absolutely yes, in history especially. That isn’t the same as “memorizing” though. For example, I might not necessarily remember the official date of the fall of Constantinople (1453) but the fact that I know that it happened about a generation before Columbus, and that Constantinople was the outpost of Christendom in a Muslim sea (though many Catholics didn’t see them as fully Christian, lol), and that once completely Muslim, the trade routes to China were blocked – all of that is important to being able to understand Columbus’s voyage. It is the framework, the understanding of the flow of events and how they related to each other, that is important. I can Google the fall of Constantinople, but it is a lot harder to build the framework via Google (or Wikipedia for that matter).

    In my own field of computer science, this is even more true. There is very little role for memorization in my field. It is all about reasoning, recognizing patterns, abstracting and problem-solving. Sure, I can memorize the factoid that mergesort is recursive, but if I don’t understand WHY it is recursive, I wouldn’t be able to implement it. I see it all the time, students who try to memorize their way through their computer science courses. They are the ones who flunk.


  2. I’m pretty sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Even though he uses the word “memorization”, Sanger is referring to “flexible knowledge”, which is defined as memorizing with meaning.


  3. CORRECTION! I should have written “INFLEXIBLE knowledge”.

    “Rote knowledge is memorizing without meaning.
    Inflexible knowledge is memorizing with meaning. It can be described as concrete and superficial.
    Knowledge is flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was learned and applied in new contexts. It can be described as deeper and abstract.
    Inflexible knowledge is the unavoidable foundation for expertise.”


%d bloggers like this: