Friday, January 22, 2010

Memorization is Important

I've dealt with this topic before (see here and here), but people keep coming up with the odd notion that thanks to the Internet, you no longer need to know things. From The Edge's (superlative) annual "World Question Center":
Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends' doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is.
Wrong. Focus is important, but no job above the level of, say, raking leaves could be performed with even minimal competency by an ignorant person who merely has access to Google. If you know nothing of automobiles, can you rebuild an engine just by Googling the answer? If you know nothing about nuclear physics, can you help design a nuclear power plant by Googling the answer? If you haven't been to medical school (and believe me, this involves gargantuan amounts of memorization of tedious facts), can you perform heart surgery by Googling the answer? If you haven't been to law school (more tedious memorization), can you argue a Supreme Court case by using Google?

To be sure, the Internet can make someone who already has a broad base of memorized knowledge slightly more competent, by reminding them of a forgotten fact or enlightening them as to a new fact that they can fit into their pre-existing base of memorized knowledge. But it's absurd to suggest that the need for a "large body of knowledge" has disappeared and been replaced by Google along with "critical thinking skills."