While sharing several drinks with my friends during our weekly gathering at the local watering hole, we got to quizzing one another about obscure units of measurement. We couldn’t for the life of us remember what a hectare was. Nor could we remember what exactly was the difference between a joule and a calorie.
Interestingly, one of our group - the most recent college graduate - did remember the bulk of the Periodic Table of the Elements.
I’ve been mulling this over all week. I spent sixteen years receiving an education. I’m somewhat ashamed at how little of it I actually remember. Some stuff sticks with me just because I have a better-than-average memory. Other things stick because they were major components of my college studies. I think it’s fair to say, though, that I’ve forgotten a great deal of what I’ve been taught.
Why do I think that is? I place a tremendous value on knowing things: being an educated person is an important goal of mine. Self awareness and self-evaluation are constants in my life, so it’s only fitting that I evaluate my education. But if I value knowledge as an independent goal, how could I have let so much of it slip away?
Maybe it’s because so little of it gets used on a regular basis. I don’t remember how to diagram a sentence, solve a quadratic equation, or who all the presidents were.
Maybe it’s because the information age makes personal knowledge less important. If we were living in the days of the American Frontier it would be important for each individual to possess as many general life skills as possible. People knew how to do all manner of things: farming, sewing, carpentry, ad infinitum. As we slid into the Industrial Age we began to notice more and more specialization. This specialization was one specific benefit of the technology sharing that took place in larger cities. The technology allowed for a dispersal of the efforts required to produce goods. This dispersal led to less dependence on single individuals to know everything, and increased communities’ interdependence.
Enter the internet. No longer do individuals even need to retain basic knowledge if it’s almost instantly accessible via the ‘net. The knowledge set is completely different. Maybe this is why I don’t worry too much about not knowing the exact definition of an ampere or a mole, or the purpose of The Tennessee Valley Authority.
This entire essay was written in under an hour. If I were in college today, I can only imagine what my bibliographies would look like. The internet is an instant-access library of unimagined proportions. Yes, it is important that people have a certain level of basic knowledge. But as we progress more and more into the Information Age, it’s important that we determine just what that base level of knowledge should consist of.
I encourage anyone reading this essay to go to Google to pursue more information about any topic. And don’t just chase down the first couple of links - really scan through the hit results and see what you find. I came across a number of very interesting pieces that were tangential to this essay, but which are worth reading nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest thing about the instant-access nature of our internet library is that it affords us the time to pursue these tangential pieces of communal knowledge.