Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wikipedia co-founder argues for the importance of 'memorizing facts'

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, explains in an EDUCAUSE essay why he disagrees with the notion that "the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary".  He appears to be channeling Daniel Willingham in promoting the idea that a rich base of knowledge is the foundation for critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Sanger's essay also includes his thoughts on group learning and constructing knowledge (fodder for future posts), but in this post my focus is his view on the topic of memorizing facts.   I should note it's been my observation that when "educationists" and others object to "rote" learning, much of the time they are really arguing against the need to practice.  They seem to be in denial of the unfortunate reality that practice is often a "dull" but unavoidable exercise in the acquisition of knowledge.
Whenever I encounter yet another instance of educationists' arguments against "memorizing," the following rather abstract yet simple thought springs to my philosopher's mind: Surely the only way to know something is to have memorized it. How can I be said to know something that I do not remember? So being opposed to memorizing has always sounded to me like being opposed to knowledge. I realize this argument likely seems glib. The thing educationists object to, of course, is not the remembering or even the memorizing but rather the memorizing by rote — that is, by dull repetition and often without experience or understanding.

In a December 2008 interview, Don Tapscott, a popular writer on the subject of the Internet and society, argued that the Internet is now "the fountain of knowledge" and that students need not memorize particular facts such as historical dates. …This view is common enough among the Wikipedia users I have come across; they sometimes declare that since the free online encyclopedia is so huge and easy to use, they feel less pressure to commit "trivia" to memory....

But to claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge. Finding out a fact about a topic with a search in Wolfram Alpha, for example, is very different indeed from knowing about and understanding the topic. Having a well-understood fact ready to recall is far different from merely getting an unfamiliar answer to a question. Reading a few sentences in Wikipedia about some theories on the causes of the Great Depression does not mean that one thereby knows or understands this topic. Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.

Moreover, if you read an answer to a question, you usually need fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer.… 

Since an ever-expanding amount of information and research is frequently updating our understanding of disciplines, there is no reason to insist on memorizing facts and figures — and no reason to insist on a core of basic knowledge and books that should be mastered.

But this argument seems fallacious. It implies that the new information has either replaced or made trivial the old information. And this is obviously not so in most subjects.And to return to my point, unless one learns the basics in those fields, Googling a question will merely allow one to parrot an answer — not to understand it.

It also won't do to make the facile reply that there is no such thing as "the basics."... But in most fields, there is certainly a body of core knowledge.

To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics. To return to my "glib" argument, surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.


  1. Quite so. Wish K-12 teachers, et al would wake up to this fact of life.

    So-called "critical thinking," built without knowledge of "mere facts," is nothing more than ignorant opinion.

  2. I just thought it was ironic that the founder of a site used as a resource for many "content free" lessons was espousing actually memorizing content.