The Duck of Minerva

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?


16 February 2008

Apparently so.

The NYT has a book review that treads the familiar ground of why Americans are so dumb when it comes to supposedly vital information about the world. The old X% of Americans support a war in Iraq, but only Y% can actually find Iraq on a map… This is especially upsetting to the classic, old-school curmudgeons who think that a classic education involves knowing a lot of key names, dates, and classical cultural references.

This particular thing, however, does not bother a number of my colleagues (I’ll admit I’m a bit more on the fence about it than others…).* The argument goes: such random trivia, like where Iraq is on a map or who was the 13th President of the United States** is readily deposited in great knowledge warehouses such as Google. If you need to know it, just look it up. More important to teach and more important to learn is the skill to look up this bit of information when you need it. Teach the skill and students will always be able to get what they need. In fact, such skills are part of the “skills revolution” that actually makes American kids/workers smarter than other kids/workers around the world.

But such pedagogy seems in the minority. The more troubling trend in American culture is that:

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Now you have talking heads on TV screaming at each other, often seeming to make stuff up to support a point, justified under the guise of “opinion” where every opinion counts (that’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it, but I believe otherwise…).

The anti-intellectualism / anti-rationalism combination undermines the knowledge gathering skills that make the need for memorization of random facts less important, thereby removing any and all facts from the evaluation of argument. When facts are widely known and memorized, they constrain a discussion to those sets of facts. Classically educated individuals talk about the classics. They also set truth conditions for claims–conforming to the shared facts.

The skills revolution of what our library folks call information literacy (the ability to locate, recognize, and evaluate relevant information) performs a similar task, albeit on another level. It too sets constraints on argument, though from a more methodological perspective. But, it still sets truth conditions for claims–demonstrated collection of relevant and accurate information from appropriately authoritative sources. To take Global Warming, for example (Gore’s movie was on tonight and I watched the last hour of it as I ate dinner….) information literacy skills lead you to the point that scientists accept global warming as a fact, as all peer reviewed scientific papers agree to this. If you know how to search for and evaluate scientific information, this fact is easily obtainable and the position is hard to dispute. But, when you ignore this skill, and adopt the anti-intellectual, anti-rationalist position lamented here, Global Warming becomes an opinion, still open for debate.

All of which is to say, I don’t worry so much about the fact that kids don’t know X or Y fact. But, I do worry when kids can’t tell the difference between analysis based on a logical arrangement of well researched facts and opinion based on personal proclivities with facts selected to fit that view.

*I think that a number of so called facts are actually more conceptual than we give them credit for, and thus, relatively important to know. Knowing where Iraq “is” is not just about a spot on a map, it also is linked to questions of strategy, culture, politics, and the like. Certain other claims, like “Iran is a player in Iraq” are greatly aided if you know that Iran and Iraq share a rather large land border.

**Millard Fillmore–I bet you didn’t know either until you googled it.

***Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling….