General Knowledge

A long article about the new twist the Internet brings into the old question of whether schoolchildren will be better off learning some general facts about history, geography, etc., or just how to use the means of finding out information when they need it.

A former winner of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” recently took part in a pub quiz which came down to a tiebreaker between his team and a group of young people who were relying on BlackBerrys. Anyone familiar with quizzes these days knows that this can happen, whether it is under the table or outside in the smokers’ zone; the combination of wireless internet access and Google searching is simply too powerful for some to resist and for others to prevent. In this case, happily, virtue triumphed and the team led by the Mastermind champion won. Then afterwards a young woman from the losing side came over and asked in baffled tones: “How did you get that?” So attuned was she to the idea that answering quiz questions was a task to be outsourced to the internet that she seemed not to understand the idea of general knowledge that was kept in the head.

Is this where we are heading? A Google search, once you have keyed the words in, takes a broadband user less than a second, and the process will only get quicker. As for those laborious keystrokes, voice-recognition technology will enable us to bypass them. And soon pretty well everybody, from schoolchildren to drinkers in pubs, will be online pretty well all of the time. In that context, perhaps there is no longer any point in keeping facts in our heads. If you want to know who wrote “Skellig”, or whether Norway is a member of the European Union, or what Cary Grant’s real name was, you ask your laptop or your phone.

I teach undergraduates, and I am prepared to bet that many other teachers have found themselves wondering whether they are seeing this force at work.

When you know how to use Google, you know everything. Right?