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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  Much of it will be outdated soon.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  The only things that have become even possibly outdated are cursive handwriting and Latin (though Latin was already mostly out, 75 years ago).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.