It's Time to Stop Learning Facts

Cell phones have changed the college experience. Students today plan parties differently, take photos differently and cheat on exams differently than their parents did. Smart phones and Internet devices are changing college yet again. As collected human knowledge becomes digital—and moves into our pockets—our relationship with facts is changing fast. In the last few days, I’ve used a mobile search engine to resolve a number of factual disagreements. One friend assumed that the GDP of China had exceeded that of the United States (nope), I called out my dad for turning right on a red arrow (as it turns out, this is legal in Washington State) and I lost a game of chess because my opponent got his pawn to the end of the board and gave himself a second queen (chess sucks).

Win or lose the arguments, I ended them with my fingers.

Five years ago these debates might have continued until we found a computer. Twenty years ago they could have lasted until we went to the library. But the vast majority of these arguments of the past fizzled out into “we’ll never know” or “let’s stop talking about this” or “hey a**hole, you can’t have two queens.” Today, I can quickly sift through a vast collection of information to find the answer, simply by reaching into my pocket.

This is not a passing trend. If CMC is anything like the outside world, there will be more networked devices on campus this year than last year. These devices will be more powerful than before, and cheaper too. Together we will create more data (this article is on the Internet!), and accessing and sorting that data will be faster and easier (Bing it!)

Not to get too “out there” on you, but we are on a path to the point at which accessing online data takes as much time as accessing it from our own memory. When we get there, the time you spent memorizing the periodic table in high school will be one-hundred-percent worthless—even for you, chemists.

We need to change how we do things.

First of all, don't worry about learning facts. What is the atom structure of methane? Who is the chair of Pomona’s Lit department? How do I get to Los Angeles? Learning the answer to these types of questions was incredibly valuable in the past. When learning simple knowledge was hard, memorizing facts could give someone a huge advantage. Those with huge stores of facts in their brains could easily access that data and apply it to the situations they faced. Today, a critical mass of CMC students can learn the answers to these questions while in Collins, on their way to meet the chair of the Pomona Lit department or while their friend is driving to Los Angeles. Putting this type of information in your brain is increasingly useless. Stop doing it.

Instead, learn skills. Knowing when you need to seek out more information, where to find it, how to analyze it and how to explain it—these are the things that matter in today's world. The same goes for the ability to play an instrument, write a compelling argument, and study for exams. These are skills. Probably most of what you do academically at CMC is learning this type of complex knowledge. Keep doing it! If you value your education and your time, take classes that emphasize learning new skills over memorization.

Hopefully taking some time to think about your relationship with information will help you spend your time more wisely. But students are not the only ones who need to adapt. Our professors do too.

This is an entrance exam to Harvard from the late 1800s. Without the Internet handy, this test would destroy me. Why? Because I have not spent any time learning how specific words translate into Latin or where rivers of the world originate. Having that information in my brain is close to worthless because I can learn it at a given moment with a few thumb flicks.

In the 1800s, Harvard University thought having this knowledge mattered. In 2012, Claremont McKenna College must realize that it matters much less and perhaps, doesn't matter at all. Soon, we will command the entire collective knowledge of the human race with our fingertips (or our eyes, or our gestures or our brains). Professors need to help their students tackle the big picture problems, rather than mire them in the minutia. For the most part, they do a wonderful job of this, but most tests are wildly out of date: taking away our tools and asking us to perform fact-based tasks prepares us for the 1970's, not the 21st century.

Last time I attended trivia night, I saw several people Googling answers under tables. Yes, they were cheating. But at some point, we won't be able to stop them, and we won't want to. During our lifetimes “searching it” will become the same as “knowing it.” We should accept that today.