Posted by Susan Orlean
My son started using “Google” as a verb about a year ago, when he had just turned five. He would ask me a question – something like how much Mars weighs, or the number of vertebrae in a dinosaur spine – and he’d grow impatient as I dug through the rubble of my memory looking for the answer. Finally, he would reach for my phone and wave it at me. “Never mind, Mommy,” he would say, pityingly, “you can just Google it.”
Despite the wounding of my parental pride, I didn’t really mind. I don’t care that much about rote memorization. An old boyfriend of mine used to get into lacerating arguments with his parents over facts, and I used to watch on in mute astonishment. How could anyone actually argue about something that could be looked up? Arguing about what something means – that makes sense to me, but not arguing over a simple, Googlable fact.
So what to make of the news that American students are terrible at history? Unfortunately, this is of the very worrying sort of deficiency, not the you-can-just-Google-it sort. Most fourth graders can’t say why Abraham Lincoln is an important historical figure? Wow. This is far more distressing than if the news had been that fourth graders were bad at reciting multiplication tables, because you can, in fact, Google that. Like teaching cursive writing – which many schools are abandoning – memorizing things that can be easily figured out or looked up sometimes seems a little pointless, except that some neurons are probably engaged each time you plug information into your brain. Being able to reel off a list of dates in history, while useful, is so much less important than understanding why those dates matter, or understanding enough about the way civilization has developed to be able to figure things out from what you already know. The questions that the fourth graders (and all the students in the study) failed on were, unfortunately, questions that required real understanding to answer. When a machine can do something better and faster than a person can, I am happy to let the machine do it. (Why tie your shoes when you can use Velcro? Why add a long list of numbers when a calculator can do it faster and more reliably?) But understanding who we are and how we came to be the way we are? That’s not Googlable now, and I hope it never will be.