Memorize Nothing, Know Everything

“The time when it was possible to be universally well-informed is past. The ideal of an ‘all-round’ education is out of date; it has been destroyed by the progress of knowledge.”

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays 1928. Knowledge has progressed still further since 1928, and so has technology. Was Russell right then, and is he now?

Russell’s idea of an ‘all-round’ education is inherently flawed. While in the past it may have seemed possible, due to the smaller size of our circle of knowledge, the ability to be universally well-informed has never existed. There has always been an unmanageable amount of information to take in. Today’s Wikipedia archive invites comparison with yesterday’s library at Babylon. The idea of the polymath, with strong knowledge in all areas was an ideal -- never an actuality. Even those who were considered to have an ‘all-round’ education by contemporary Western standards were probably unfamiliar with Sanskrit maths, or Norse folklore.

We are more aware today of our limitations.

As our circle of knowledge grows, so too does the circumference of darkness. We see more clearly the outline of our ‘known unknowns’ (to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld). Knowing increasingly what we do not know makes it starkly apparent that we cannot legitimately claim to have anything near Russell’s imagined ‘all-round’ education. Poet Anatole France believed education is about being able to ‘differentiate between what you do know, and what you don’t’. As time progresses, the amount that we do know will continue to be engulfed by that which we don’t.

Even if it were possible to reach the ‘universally well-informed’ ideal, Sir Ken Robinson of TED makes it clear that our current school system is not built to cater for that ‘fast food model of education’. Thus our focus must shift. In our modern world, it is technology that best helps us re-frame what we consider an ‘all-round’ education. Education and technology are clearly linked: technology has advanced our pursuit of knowledge in countless ways, and allowed for the exponential growth of human endeavour. Technological breakthroughs come around increasingly faster and bring with them greater significance. That there were only 66 years between the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight and the first man on the moon is testament to this. The speed at which we innovate and share discoveries causes our collective circle of knowledge to grow daily, but also makes us more aware of the impossibility of being well-informed. Technology has both expanded our knowledge, and made it clear that trying to learn it all is a futile task.

Clearly, then, an all-round education cannot be composed of the broad, shallow sort of knowledge that Russell’s statement surely alludes to. The very nature of education and knowledge means it is impossible to teach everything. Instead, education should be about giving students the skills to know where to look to learn more for themselves. We must equip students for the changing world, and give them the tools they need to produce knowledge of their own.

Education thus has a crucial role to play in encouraging the development of skills. Currently, the primary and secondary education system is flawed in the way it helps students develop their skills -- as demonstrated by Sir Ken Robinson’s celebrated TED talks.

But technology can provide new methods. It can democratise education. The ability to get an ‘all-round’ education need no longer be rooted having the privilege of being born with a rich background in a developed area. Projects such as One Laptop Per Child and Wikipedia Zero are steps towards ensuring that information is a basic right for the majority of the world – rather than a privilege.

More crucially, technology also allows us to forgo being universally well-informed. Instead of requiring us to memorise facts and figures in rote style, information is available at our fingertips, through our phones, wherever we are. While this may seem troubling to some, it is actually desirable. Immediate access allows education to focus on teaching students to synthesise sources of information, to create knowledge and insight, rather than learning a growing catalogue of data.

The combination of democratising education along with the renewed focus on creating and synthesising (rather than remembering facts) has profound implications. Current technology means it is straightforward for us to know what we don’t know; to be able to learn more for ourselves; and indeed to develop our skills. The surge in popularity of YouTube tutorial videos and is not by chance. An ‘all-round’ education in 2014 is knowing how to take advantage of these cultural shifts. Released from the need to memorise, learners are free to innovate.

Was Russell right then? Probably not. It was never truly possible to have an ‘all-round’ education – merely the perception of one. Is he right now? Almost certainly. But as a society, technology has enabled us to change what a good education is, and invite possibilities that were previously unthinkable. Progress requires us to constantly reconsider what an ‘all-round’ education looks like; but the future of education -- and technology -- remains bright.

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