by MERLIN CROSSLEY
Way back when I was an Australian PhD student in England, I recall being with friends who were talking about their team’s victory in the 1966 football World Cup. None were old enough to have watched the game live – but they knew every player and every play. I was amazed. I was also completely out of the conversation.
But by listening carefully I got the picture. This foundational knowledge allowed me to join in future conversations about football and to get the most out of classic songs like “Football’s Coming Home” that emerge each time the World Cup comes round. I really like the lyrics.
Knowing things is important for joining in and feeling part of a community. Foundational knowledge also allows you to understand and appreciate subsequent developments. Beyond that it shapes your identity and expands the groups of people you can identify with.
It’s fun to know things. And it’s not just nerds that like to know things. The popularity of trivia nights attests to the fact that people from all walks of life like to be tested and exercise their knowledge banks.
Guidebooks exist to tell tourists about new places. Knowing the history, key people, the natural history, and even geology, can enrich one’s experience. You can look out for things, you can discuss the details. You can also make sense of things that might otherwise be bewildering or simply meaningless. Knowing stuff is good.
Being ignorant, on the other hand, can be humiliating. Remember how at the beginning of the election campaign Anthony Albanese was caught out not knowing the unemployment rate. When Boris Johnston was asked the price of a simple thing like a bottle of milk, he shook off the question saying, “I don’t know. So what? I can tell you the price of a bottle of champagne!”.
When it comes to formal education some contend that in the digital age one doesn’t need to know things because it’s possible to look everything up – Google is never far away. I have some sympathy for this. Memorising is a hard slog and I’m no fan of too much rote learning. On the other hand, I certainly believe in some.
One reason is simple – in conversation – and much of human life revolves around conversations – there is no time to look things up. This also extends to the silent inner dialogues one experiences when thinking through complex problems. Knowing things helps you to dig deep.
In my own education I was subjected to old-fashioned teachers who made us learn things – the first 20 elements of the periodic table, the Roman emperors, the French verbs that take être in the passé composé. No one made me learn Pi to a hundred decimal places because that is something you can look up. But the other information was considered foundational.
Learning dates was particularly helpful. When I was younger I went cycling with a friend in Europe and we carefully learnt an entire timeline for the Western world. Without a timeline all those ancient stories: the Trojan War, the battle of Marathon, the death of Caesar, King Arthur, King Alfred, King Cnut, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the American Declaration of Independence trip over each other. One can’t always look things up – not when cycling past a castle, or watching a film with friends, or even when engrossed in a book.
The nice thing is that not all rote learning is a slog. Some happens naturally. Trivia, including important foundational knowledge, is absorbed automatically, in perhaps the same way a French baby learns those pesky verbs that take être. I’ve learnt the numbers of most of my favourite football players just by watching games. I’ve learnt a lot of science and management by just watching, via informal lifelong learning.
But it also helps to remind students that knowing things is valued. As a teacher I encourage students to commit foundational knowledge to memory. But the “pivot” to take-home exams together with the constant availability of Google means that students don’t always feel that they need to learn things. Some people insist that interpretation, synthesis, and understanding are more important than raw knowledge. Such understandings are important but raw knowledge is important too. Everyone needs a vocabulary of foundational knowledge.
Google hasn’t really dented our thirst for knowledge. People soak up facts naturally and hunger for interesting new things. People take pride in what they know.
The world is in the early stages of a knowledge (or data) explosion that surpasses what any single person could ever know. But that doesn’t mean the sage on the stage, the expert, the connoisseur is no more. In fact, I contend that you need knowledge in your head in order to navigate through the forests of data. And being able to think on one’s feet and change direction in conversation will always rely on the information that is in our heads rather than on our phones.
In universities I think it is important that we stand up for actually knowing things and insist on a little bit of rote learning now and then!
Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality, UNSW SYDNEY