Do We Still Believe Knowledge Is Power?

I’ve written about what I believe is the false dichotomy between knowledge and application previously both here and here, and for a full understanding of my position, please refer to those posts.  Here I’m just adding another layer to my previous arguments.

I recently had a conversation about whether K4-12 educational institutions should focus on knowledge acquisition or knowledge application.  The person I was speaking with brought up what I consider to be a rather tired example in support of knowledge application as more important than knowledge acquisition.  It went something along the lines of the following: “Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want, therefore, they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.  We would serve the students best by focusing on application.  Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.  And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future, the ability to problem solve is most important.”  Let’s pull this apart because, while there are bits of this statement with which I agree, taken on the whole, I vehemently disagree.

“Nowadays students can Google all the information they could ever want…”  A true statement as far as it goes.  However, and it’s a big “however,” students don’t automatically know what is important information and what is not.  Unless you are a complete relativist, in which case please go to a different blog, some knowledge is more important, more useful, or more worthy of knowing than other knowledge. Thus, simply being able to Google information is meaningless.

“…they don’t need to memorize as much as they once did.”  If the object of memorization is simply to have singular bits of information floating in one’s head for no apparent reason, then I suppose this part is true.  Students can simply look up those singular bits of information on the Internet when the mood strikes them or the need arises.  But of course, we know that we want kids to convert information from short term to long term memory because that information helps them to problem solve, helps them to synthesize new information, helps them to have a semi-intelligent conversation with someone they meet on the street without having to look every sentence up on the Internet for reference.

“Applying knowledge will enable them to practice problem solving.”  Very true.  Application is important.  Application is actually a very important component in converting information from short to long term memory.  Students who don’t apply the knowledge in their short term memory (i.e. practice and play with the information, repeatedly) will never manage to lock it into their long term memory.  Without locking information into their long term memory, they might as well have not learned it in the first place.  It’s what I like to call “Teflon Learning.”*  Unfortunately, the statement as it stands does not take into account the full complexity of what “applying knowledge” entails.  First, students have to have something in their short term memory to begin applying.  Then, they have to have information in their long term memories in order to figure out how to apply their new knowledge and integrate it into what they already know, in order to have it make sense and be synthesized.  Even I am simplifying this process incredibly, but at least I’m acknowledging there is a role for knowledge acquisition and memory in the process.  The statement above does not.

“And since we don’t know what problems they will face in the future…”  Sorry, but the historian in me screams when I hear people talking about how we don’t know what problems the future holds for us.  This is not as new as everyone seems to think.  I teach my students that pre-history was like a movie in slow motion, history up to the Industrial Revolution was like a movie at regular speed, and history since the Industrial Revolution has been on an ever-increasing fast forward.  So I agree that we don’t know what problems tomorrow’s generation will face, but I would contend that is not exactly new.  The problems that my generation is encountering (FYI – I’m 35) look vastly different than the problems of my parents’ generation, and the problems that my parents faced were not those my grandparents faced.  This does not give educators a free pass to jettison knowledge acquisition in favor of knowledge application, yet many educators will try to use this idea in just that way, in large because they don’t understand the role of knowledge acquisition in knowledge application as I mentioned above.

“The ability to problem solve is most important.”  Agreed.  Unfortunately, everything that came before this sentence is erroneous, at least in my opinion.  It is a true statement built on a shaky foundation that will make the end goal of teaching our students to problem solve less likely to be reached.

*More on Teflon Learning to come.




  1. Well said. I read an article recently on the value of memorizing poetry – the author put forth the idea of ‘carrying a poem around inside of you’. The depth, beauty, purpose, and nuance of language can sometimes only be understood ( and thus applied) when one knows it so well he is carrying it around inside him.

    What you are arguing aligns perfectly with why we catechize our children and why we have them memorize scripture. There is power in the knowledge itself, being able to call to mind throughout one’s life what he needs in the moment.

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