Even With Google, Knowing Stuff Is Crucial to Basic Reasoning
Memorization matters: An empty brain has nothing to crank on
What’s the difference between socialism and communism? How does global warming occur? What’s an economy of scale?
Easily Google-able questions — and parents’ own unhappy recollections of learning that relied on rote memorization — may encourage households to lighten up on the accumulation of knowledge in young minds. “They can always Google it!”
Especially with education and career advice increasingly centering around critical thinking, or reasoning, as opposed to the accumulation of technical knowledge.
And indeed, reasoning is what employers want and, increasingly, what many universities and high schools aim to teach. Let’s check in on that trend, but keep in mind the value of actually knowing stuff.
An expansive working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that reasoning is increasingly incentivized across many tiers of society. From the cradle to the most rewarding college degree to the job market, society increasingly prizes people who can synthesize information, think critically and solve problems. Less valued: people who can perform a moving recitation of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood,” such as your author.
This sought-after form of thinking is known as fluid intelligence, as opposed to crystallized intelligence, which is knowledge, factual recall and “just knowing facts that, in principle, someone could look up,” says co-author Jesse Shapiro, an economist at Brown University.
For example, until this century, knowing facts was a lucrative enterprise. Doctors memorized details of thousands of diseases and medications; lawyers traded on minds stuffed thick with cases, both their own and landmarks; academics provided immediate recall of entire eras, genres and fields.
But now any of these professionals can consult Siri or Alexa mid-surgery, mid-brief or mid-class. What matters more is what they can do with that information, such as drawing inferences and problem solving. Quick comprehension is also a key skill. In many fields, professionals need just enough familiarity with large swaths of information to know how to access further detail.
For this study, the researchers first analyzed school lessons. “We digitized all the Swedish school curricula, and found that they place increasing emphasis on critical thinking, and not memorizing, knowledge, memory, vocabulary or facts,” says co-author David Seim, an economist at Stockholm University. He also surveyed Swedish parents of all ages about what sorts of skills they had encouraged in their first child. Sure enough, modern parents don’t just want their kiddos to know letters; they want them to code with them. Or write hypotheses.
“Parents are saying, ‘I want to raise a kid who can think critically and solve problems,’” Shapiro says. Poetry recitations are no longer commonplace. “It may be because that skill is just not handy when the poem is readily available on any screen.”
Before you ditch the flash cards, however, we should pause here to note that there is considerable evidence that critical thinking requires a substantial knowledge base. Put simply, an empty brain has nothing to crank on. Kids need lots of facts in their brain to make sense of the world, and a teenager can’t discover the similarities between, say, two genuses without knowing all the species in those genuses. Facts and memorization are far from useless, particularly developmentally; the point here is that society is now strongly incentivizing that people do something smart with those facts. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in knowing the facts.
Being economists, the researchers also studied job markets and job descriptions, where they found that reasoning pays. Occupations that require fluid intelligence, such as computer science, take up a growing portion of the job market, and pay more compared to knowledge jobs; higher-paying jobs require the reasoning to make decisions. The researchers found this by tracking the results of compulsory cognitive tests taken by Swedish men as part of the military process, and their ensuing jobs and earnings. (Yes, this study is limited to men in Sweden, though the researchers say that Sweden follows similar skill trends as other countries.)
This aligns with other findings, such as the Flynn effect, the much-studied phenomenon in which ensuing generations test a few IQ points higher each decade. “We’re just getting better at making skilled people,” Shapiro says. Some Flynn effect research concludes that a number of environmental factors, including improvements in nutrition, healthcare and education, spur that intelligence. Shapiro and Seim’s study adds to that literature by suggesting that it may also be incentivized through jobs, education and parenting that encourages young people to use their noggins.
But don’t be afraid to know some stuff, too.
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