The “times-are-changing, specific-knowledge-is-unnecessary” canard

I don’t know how many times I have read, “The world, and research findings, are changing so fast that it is pointless to insist on learning particular bits of knowledge.  Much of it will be outdated soon.  So the only really important thing to teach children is how to think.”

This is dangerous nonsense.  It is partly responsible for educators’ ambivalent attitude toward substantial knowledge, which is in turn responsible for so much ignorance in American society–I chalk it up to schools dominated by the various 20th-century “progressive” educational methods.  After all, just think of what it means to say that it’s pointless to insist on learning any particular subject.  It’s pointless to learn math?  Reading?  Writing?  Science?  History?  There are truly excellent and I daresay objective reasons that these, and others, are important subjects to study.  I recently gave some reasons to study geography, a relatively “fast-changing” field.  In fact, exactly to the contrary of the above fashionable canard, I think it’s important to learn a lot about the whole world–far more than most elementary students learn.

Imagine someone saying to a child 75 years ago, quite accurately, that in your lifetime the world will change radically, and much new knowledge will be discovered and things that are relevant in 75 years are today unknown or unemphasized.  Would it follow, 75 years ago, that we had no idea what we needed to know or learn?  Of course not.  There is no need to throw the curriculum out the window simply because the world is changing.  Consider the elementary school subjects (or what should be such subjects) and ask yourself how many of them have changed much in the last 75 years, despite the fact that the most revolutionary technological changes in all of human history happened in this period: reading; penmanship; arithmetic; world history since ancient times; national histories; geography; science; art; music; and various others to taste.

What new subjects have become important for elementary students to know?  Typing and computers, and that’s pretty much it.  The only things that have become even possibly outdated are cursive handwriting and Latin (though Latin was already mostly out, 75 years ago).  National history has had 75 more years’ worth of facts, but a similar observation could be made 75 and 150 years ago, and that wasn’t a reason not to learn history.  Same is true of geography–we don’t not learn geography because borders will change in our lifetimes.

What gives this meme (actually, I hate the concept of “memes” but it fits in this case) its teeth is that science and technology changes and develops so fast.  But the vast bulk of these changes are relevant to students at higher levels, in high school and college.  And even then, we should not tell students, “You don’t have to learn brain science because the field will look totally different in 20 years.”  We should say, “You really ought to learn brain science because it’s such a hot field with fascinating discoveries being made all the time.”

This is not to mention a point well discussed by E.D. Hirsch Jr. in Cultural Literacy that specific knowledge greatly enhances one’s ability to reason; if one does not have specific knowledge, then one can neither mount a defense of one’s claims nor evaluate others’ arguments for their factual content.  All that formal logic by itself can do, of course, is evaluate the formal logic of an argument, and most fallacies that people commit are informal, not formal fallacies–and informal fallacies often require some specific knowledge to identify.  More to the point, the soundness of arguments requires the ability to evaluate the truth value of premises, which is a matter of factual content, not logic.  The more knowledge one has about a field, the better one can reason and judge the reasoning about it.  If you want to teach children “how to think,” it is crucial that you acquaint them with the subject of thought and not just its form.






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

7 responses to “The “times-are-changing, specific-knowledge-is-unnecessary” canard”

  1. I probably shouldn’t argue with you, as it won’t do any good, but you’ve mixed up a lot of things here. Math doesn’t change much over the centuries. However, children don’t get taught the sort of math that’s useful in life (probability and statistics), instead they get what came from classical Greek interests (who really liked e.g. geometry). They also don’t learn interesting geography – i.e. why seas and mountains matter – and instead are condemned to memorizing fairly useless bits which you can indeed look up if you ever need them (and you won’t).

    But did you ever hear of a book called “The Saber-Tooth Curriculum”? This post reminds me of that book.

    1. By all means, Seth, if you want to argue with me, please proceed. You haven’t started yet, I observe.

      I haven’t mixed up anything. If you re-read my post, you’ll notice that I did not take a stand on whether the curriculum should be “relevant” or not, or how relevant it should be, and at what periods of a child’s education. (But really, “relevant”–what a weasel word. Relevant to what? Relevant for what purpose? Why should education be “relevant” in the sense you prefer?) I merely said that there are some who claim that study of particular curricula, i.e., inculcation of a body of knowledge that children are expected to learn, is passe because knowledge is changing so rapidly. I disagreed with this, and offered some reasons. Are you saying that you disagree with my reasons? On what basis?

      I agree 100% that kids should be taught probability and statistics, as well as many other things that they have no time to be taught, because so much time is wasted in school.

      You’re rather vague on which parts of mathematics you think shouldn’t be taught. What do you think?

      As to geography, I agree that spending a lot of time specifically memorizing capitals and whatnot is not necessary. I haven’t had H. do so, and I don’t plan to. We will make a survey of the whole world, however, because this is the world he lives in, and the more data he has about it, the better he will understand it–and education is first and foremost about understanding our world. Actually, I’m not sure what argument you want to make re geography, but I can tell you that arguments whose main premise is “you can look up a fact if you ever need it (and you won’t)” are unlikely to be very persuasive. I am proud of having gained a lot of perfectly useless knowledge. Aren’t you? In what sense is most of your theoretical or academic knowledge “useful” to you? Seth, anyone who has any appreciation for the liberal arts generally has, in my opinion, a well-justified contempt for the view that knowledge should not be pursued because it is “useless” according to our ordinary sensibilities. So that’s where I stand–in the long line of those who appreciate “useless” liberal arts knowledge. You don’t?

      Maybe what we disagree about is the uses to which knowledge should be put. I think the most pleasurable use to which knowledge is put is in constructing, as it were, a personal understanding of the world and how it works. Why think that the only legitimate “use” of knowledge involves concrete-bound activities like engineering and politics?

  2. Dave Holden

    Hi Larry: Thanks for the post. Given I work at a Christian liberal arts college, it is not shocking I am on board with your advocacy for knowledge and “knowledge for knowledge sake. ” My addition to the discussion is to offer that K-12 curricula and student assessment of learning, for the most part, still lacks an emphasis on performance or use of knowledge in context.

    Worksheet and standardized tests are wonderful for short-term memorization but poor for building learning abilities.

    The September Fast Company magazine has an interesting piece on the importance of promoting creativity ( Interestingly, the article features an Indian business owner lauding American education in this area over the British based Indian system.

    I do not agree with the article when it pits STEM vs. creativity. Creativity does not occur without knowledge…lots of it. It also doesn’t happen without students being called on to produce – art, products, programming, plans, stories, etc. It does not happen because of standardized tests or successfully passing them. We need to harness technology to “test” via more accurate and performance based assessments.

    1. I think what schooling misses most is not performance but reading lots and lots of good books. Of course, it depends on the subject.

      But I agree with you about worksheets and standardized tests–a waste of time in most cases.

  3. Tobia Tesan

    Stating the painfully obvious.

    A dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

    Thank you, Mr. Sanger.

  4. GPC

    This argument really irritates me too. Brain science may change substantially in 20 years but the kinds of foundational knowledge needed to study brain science won’t. Our understanding of the basics of brain structure and how the nervous system works really won’t change very much, so the vast majority of foundational knowledge needed to study brain science will still be relevant 50-100 years from now.

    I think a big problem we have nowadays is that people only value knowledge that relates to the workforce. Something is considered unimportant if it doesn’t have use on the job. But work is just one part of our lives.

    Imagine if the only knowledge the founding fathers of this country had was relevant to their respective careers. Could they have created a new nation built on principles and ideas that were in existence but hadn’t really been put into practice before? What if as young men they had said we aren’t going to bother learning anything that has no practical application? What kind of country would we be living in?

  5. […] is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn’t matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. And if we could only jettison our […]

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