When my father was growing up, his father offered him 25 cents to memorize the complete list of U.S. presidents. “Number one, George Washington. Number two, John Adams …”
A generation later my dad made the same deal with me, upping the reward to $5. (The prize had grown, he explained, “because of inflation and because there are more presidents now.”)
This year I offered my own son $10 to perform the same stunt. My son, however, was baffled. Why on earth should he memorize the presidents?
Nowadays, he argued, “everybody has a smartphone” and always will. He'll probably turn out to be correct; 2013 is a tipping point, in which, for the first time in history, smartphones will outsell plain ones.
In other words, having a computer in your pocket is the norm. Google is always one tap away. So there's very little sense, as far as my son is concerned, in memorizing anything: presidents, the periodic table of the elements, the state capitals or the multiplication tables above 10.
Now, parents in my generation might have a predictable reaction: dismay and disappointment. “Those young kids today! Do we have to make everything easy?” we say. “If they don't have enough facts in their heads, they won't be able to put new information into context.”
That's an understandable argument. On the other hand, there is a powerful counterargument: As society marches ever forward, we leave obsolete skills in our wake. That's just part of progress. Why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?
Maybe memorization is different than those job skills. Maybe having a store of ready information is more fundamental, more important, and thus we should fight more fiercely to retain it.
And yet we've confronted this issue before—or, at least, one that is almost exactly like it. When pocket calculators came along, educators and parents were alarmed about students losing the ability to perform arithmetic using paper and pencil. After hundreds of generations of teaching basic math, were we now prepared to cede that expertise to machines?
Yes, we were. Today calculators are almost universally permitted in the classroom. You are even allowed to use one—encouraged, in fact—when you are taking the SAT.
In the end, we reasoned (or maybe rationalized) that the critical skills are analysis and problem solving—not basic computation. Calculators will always be with us. So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems?
In the same way, maybe we'll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student's task. Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary—and let students focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance).
Of course, it's a spectrum. We'll always need to memorize information that would be too clumsy or time-consuming to look up daily: simple arithmetic, common spellings, the layout of our hometown. Without those, we won't be of much use in our jobs, relationships or conversations.
But whether we like it or not, we may as well admit that the rest of it will probably soon go the way of calligraphy, the card catalogue and long division. Whenever we need to access abstruse facts, we'll just grab our phones—at least until we implant even better technologies right into our brain.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
Six ways that brains trump tech: ScientificAmerican.com/aug2013/pogue