Friday, October 16, 2009

The Importance of Knowledge

~From Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham, page 35:

I began this chapter with a quotation from Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  I hope you are now persuaded that Einstein was wrong.  Knowledge is more important, because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least for the sort of imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.


I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for useless memorization of information.  I suppose we are to take these remarks as ironic, or at least interesting, but I for one don’t need brilliant, highly capable minds telling me (and my children) how silly it is to know things.

I think the author is missing the point of these quotes.  These “brilliant minds” are not saying that knowledge is completely unimportant, as the author seems to be inferring.  How did these thinkers gain the knowledge that was important to them?  They sought it out themselves.  Yes, knowledge may be a requirement for imagination to work well, but that doesn’t mean just shoving any old facts into your head is necessarily going to help.  Imagination, creativity, decision making ... these processes will lead you to knowledge that will be useful.

Now, obviously some material taught in schools is important to everyone, such as knowing basic math, how to read, how to communicate within our traditional rules of grammar, etc.  But over the years, society has collectively shoved more and more information into schools, information that can be both of no interest or use to students.  Teachers, and perhaps this author, might argue “well, students might use it one day!”  So what?  You could say that about a lot of material that isn’t being taught in schools.

I can’t get into the minds of Einstein and Mark Twain and such and defend what they really meant when they spoke about their thoughts on schooling, but rather than viewing their quotes as “denigrating the importance of factual knowledge” (as the author thinks), I view them as defending the notion that not all knowledge is useful knowledge, and the idea of forcing students to learn a specific amount of knowledge for little reason (or just because they might use it someday) is simply stupid.  Knowledge is more useful, easier to gain, and more worthwhile gaining when the student has interest and purpose in gaining it.  Force-feeding calculus and chemistry and history and physics to minds that will only forget it with disuse is a complete waste of time.

I like to think that that’s why some “brilliant minds” are not so enthusiastic about schooling.



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