Saturday, May 31, 2008

Just look it up on the web

Here's an argument I get every semester, from an editorial in the Times about how "elite" got to be a bad word:

"After listening to one of my lectures, a college student told me that it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. “You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.

How would the rest of you respond to that point? It makes a sort of sense. I generally just say that my job involves testing them, but I'm glad their computer is smart. But, if that's how they see it, why learn anything?


narrator said...

As one of the leading proponents of teaching kids to look things up on-line - and one of the biggest opponents of testing trivia in education, I'd need to point out to this unfortunate student a couple of things:

First, you're in college, so you already are trying to join the elite, thus, don't sound like an idiot.

Second, you can't search for information online without decent background knowledge, or, more to the point, you can, but you'll be wasting most of your life.

It might be rote memorization to recall all the times tables or complex algebraic formulas. Though it helps if you can still find some way to quickly figure 11x13 in your head, and it helps to know whether you need the formula for tangent or the formula for co-tangent so you can find the right one. But it is not rote memorization to know - to fully internalize - the basics of your culture.

Just as it would be an unfortunate waste of time to have to check a color wheel each morning to know that the sky is blue, it might help - when you are being, say, arrested, to know the Bill of Rights and the fact that you'll be going to court and not the White House.

But I guess little illustrates better the split we were just discussing, between Americans and the rest of the world on cultural education, than this kind of story.

This student cannot possibly compare the US political system to that of France or Ireland or Germany or Saudi Arabia, because he does not know his own political system. He cannot conceivably learn about the world because he has no idea where he is himself.

Holly said...

That's so bizarre. Who doesn't want to be elite? The implication is that by learning things, one is somehow causing someone else suffering. Can they really be so egalitarian as to want to promote ignorance for everyone, because it's the lowest common denominator?

Did they LEARN about the lowest common denominator??

One begins to suspect that they've actually misunderstood the concept of elite. Elite does not mean subjugating innocent people by cruelly forcing them to learn things that are matters of public record.

Elite means refusing to educate anyone of a certain ethnic origin, or sex, or social stature. Elite means concentrating wealth so much that the idea of internet access is as remote as the idea of life on Mars. Elite means not even making the laws and foundations of the government and society available to the citizens, so that when they are arrested, they have no means of knowing why, or if their arrest is legitimate, or how to defend themselves, if that's even possible.

I don't know if a tirade about how that attitude is ignorant as fuck would actually help. Probably not.

When I was a kid, my cousins all used a word to indicate the worst, the lowest, the lamest things a person could do. If someone did something really bad, something despicable, they would condemn it with this word: common

Shit, I dunno. Maybe their kids condemn with the word elite?

Rufus said...

Holly: It's interesting that you mention that. My grandparents had a little real estate office and certainly weren't eggheads. But for years they kept hundreds of paperbacks that they'd slowly accumulated of all the great books. And they just felt that you had a duty to try to educate yourself in order to be a good citizen and, more generally, a good person. It wasn't arrogance, but duty that compelled them. And I can't imagine either one of them damning something by calling it elite.

Ira(?): I often compare it to weightlifting: the memorization part is like training with the 5 lb weights so that you won't hurt yourself when you get to the really big stuff.

narrator said...

I love what Holly says here, because that's the issue. The true American elites (the power wealth) promote the ideas this student expresses in order to hold onto power. 300 years ago in Ireland it was illegal to give Catholics an education. 200 years ago in the US it was illegal to give Blacks and education, but we don't need these laws anymore because a vast group of Americans have been convinced that knowledge is worthless. That, obviously, is just what the elites desire.

Now, I'm the first to suggest that we offer access to technology and access to different routes to information and supports for memory in almost whatever way will make it work best for students, but at some core point, you've got to know something basic. The weight lifting metaphor works, and it is also important to suggest that you'd rather not need to relearn everything about your computer every time you turn it on. Because if you need to do that, you'll never get around to looking anything up online.

And yes... Ira.

Hiromi said...

“You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.”

A number of thoughts:

The student's attitude is, I think, reflective of how he or she views knowledge itself. According to this attitude, knowledge is essentially trivia; it's bits of information with no connection to reality. I wonder whether this attitude is itself the result of privilege. This kid doesn't seem to have been in a position in which he or she *had* to know what First Amendment rights or parts of government were.

You might point out that poor people might also show apathy toward gaining knowledge about these things, but I'm not sure if their reasoning is necessarily limited to fear of elitism (although the "anti-education culture" in some communities gets plenty of airtime). Rather than that, in their case, it might be learned helplessness: "Why bother?"

I wonder whether people in other countries who don't have guaranteed access to education feel this way.

I also wonder about the student's previous education -- did it emphasize the testing of facts outside of their context? The presentation of knowledge as isolated facts combined with the privileged position of never having had to really know anything might go a ways toward explaining things.

I don't know how to counter the kid's argument. I guess it depends on how that kid wants to live. The kid doesn't see knowledge as even useful; let's not even even get into issues of self-improvement here. If you want to be passive, a good cog that goes to work and does what it's told, never questioning why things are the way they are, then why know anything? Knowledge is power, and this kid doesn't seem to want any.

gregvw said...

There is a certain important difference between having knowledge already in your head and knowing where you can get the information. When you learn a piece of information, it doesn't just sit in a drawer in your brain, it changes the landscape and how you thing, albeit possibly in a small way. The accumulated effects of knowing many things are quite substantial. If nothing else, when one does not have a complete enough fundamental knowledge, they will not know where to look for specific information.
Probably the gap between readily available and fetchable information will collapse with the development of cybernetic uplinks.

Rufus said...

Hiromi: I was actually talking about this with one of grad students who came over from India after university and she has almost no time whatsoever for this attitude. And, indeed, in their universities they have no time for students who can't cut the mustard. So I think the attitude is definitely learned.

Greg: Jane Ellen Harrison, a great classicist from Cambridge, called it "mental furniture". There is knowledge that changes how you move around your head and which becomes part of your everyday reality.

gregvw said...

Me being the unreasonably geeky left-brainer that I am, think of innate knowledge as part of the L2 cache and stuff that has to be looked up as part of the DRAM.

Rufus said...

That works too.