I don’t have a good title for this post but I bet Google does (?)

A quick thanks to everyone who’s tweeted about the guest posts from a techie patron (part 1, part 2), and welcome to anyone joining us from Twitter! You would make my day if you subscribed (RSS above right) or commented. Today, though, we take a break from the woes of web design and shoes, reach into my teaching background, and talk about learning…

Thank goodness: an article which critiques the notion that learning facts is no longer important because you can just look things up on the internet.

I have a special bias on this question: I am a former Latin teacher, and languages are perhaps the single subject resting most on memorization these days. (In fact, one of my major tasks in Latin I each year was to teach memorization skills to students who had generally not, up to then, had a reason to acquire them.) You can, yes, look up the endings to the five declensions every time you encounter a noun; but if you haven’t — not merely memorized — but internalized them, to the point where you instantly recognize the ending, grasp its potential syntactic roles, and connect those to semantics — you will lose the forest for the trees. You will have no hope of ever reading the sentence, much less its paragraph; it will be a set of disconnected facts of grammar, too many to hold in your head for the purpose of drawing connections.

(Those of you who took, say, at least three, four middle-school years of Latin, or equivalent, will recognize how desperately that final clause wished to be gerundive — but only, of course, if you have fully automatized the concept of “gerundive”. Those of you who have to look it up will probably not understand what I am talking about, even after you look at the definition. Of course, had I not written this parenthesis, you would’ve have known it was there to be looked up at all…)

The notion that we don’t need to learn facts because we can look them up betrays — I think — paradoxically — the belief that education is nothing but the knowledge of unconnected facts. It treats possession of these facts as the beginning, and end, of learning. I think, rather, that the possession of facts is a prequel to synthesis. I have heard the “no point in teaching facts we can look up” crowd go on to say we are thereby liberated to spend our time on higher-level thinking skills, but I have never been clear on how these skills can be taught in the absence of content.

(They are, of course, right that the particular content may be both unimportant and ephemeral toward this end, but the content must, nonetheless, be there. And as long as it is there, why not make it content that can be synthesized with other parts of an education? Why not make it mean something? I was, for instance, always disappointed that the Latin textbook I taught from gave, as Latin reading passages, made-up stories of made-up people, rather than myth or history, which could have been teaching two things for the price of one…)