The Beginning of Wisdom

Don’t worry, I’m sure I can google it

Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of your own ignorance. This is no longer true. Nowadays, the knowledge of your own ignorance is the beginning of a race towards a computer with Internet access.

As long as cantankerous old people have existed, they have complained that kids nowadays don’t seem to know anything. But for the first time in history, this may actually be true. Attending the first meeting of a Government class early in the semester, I heard a professor talk about historical dates. “I don’t expect you to memorize dates,” he said. “Three years from now, you won’t remember any dates. You can google dates, but you can’t google how to think.” Or can you? I googled “How to Think” and got 405,000,000 results. None of them provide concrete instructions, but you can “Learn How a 45 Year Old Woman Took Control of Her Sugar Addiction and Food Cravings. You Can Do It, Too.” Perhaps the professor was right.

Today’s high schools and universities abound in courses geared towards teaching people “how to think.” Science, math, and English courses focus not on teaching specific material but on “approaches” and “methodologies.” On the surface, this seems to make sense. With so much information readily accessible, why waste mental space on facts like the population of Russia or the circumference of a circle? Humans have limited mental capacity. Even Sherlock Holmes had to purge his mind of random trivia occasionally to make room for more important matters. Rote memorization, long a mainstay of the classroom, is now relegated to Classics concentrators and those people who play online trivia games for fun. For the first time in centuries, humans can store all those pesky facts on Wikipedia and devote their entire minds to thinking.

But what will we think about?

This is the real problem, and, like any member of my generation faced with a real problem, I googled it. Apparently, I have nothing to worry about. The website “Gadzillion Things To Think About” claims that there are over 13,570 different things I can think about, although it hasn’t been updated since October 25th, so maybe there are more now. The “thought of the month” was an interesting tidbit from Don F: “Do walkers and joggers turn down their iPods when they are looking for an address?”

Somehow, this didn’t seem like quite the quality of thought anyone had in mind. After about a minute of considering this, I became bored and discontented. I tried googling “Profound Things to Think About,” but without any actual knowledge to draw upon, I found it challenging to come up with a solution to the budget crisis on short notice.

It turns out that in order to think well, knowledge helps. With Wikipedia and Google, our generation is poor in knowledge, specialized or otherwise. While this would seem to be a weight off our minds, it also makes our thinking less profound. Unlike prior generations, who wiled away the hours between going uphill both ways to school in massive hailstorms by memorizing the works of great authors, we devote our time to YouTube and Facebook, confident that the real information is all there somewhere should we ever need it. Besides the fact that agreeing to disagree long since went the way of the dodo—that guy with the iPhone who can google it follows conversations as a shark follows a ship—our fundamental ability to converse has suffered. Instead of marshaling facts and precedents, we simply unleash contrasting opinions at increasing decibel levels.

In this world where everyone has access to the same basic information about a variety of subjects but few people truly know things, the superficiality of our knowledge renders us vulnerable. Sure, there’s But who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Without our own knowledge to draw on, we must rely on the kindness of strangers. Admittedly, people who edit massive online encyclopedias in their spare time are probably not dangerous psychopaths, but there are plenty of pranksters out there who add things like “My dad knew him” to articles on Idiosyncrasy. This is hilarious, but without some tidbits bouncing around our own crania, we become unable to sift fact from fiction. This is dangerous.

Thanks to postmodernism, we tend to see all facts as meaningless trivia, no one more vital than any other. Yet this disregard for facts qua facts is intellectually crippling. Facts are the raw material of thought, and the knowledge of significant facts makes sophisticated thought possible. Some information is important and some is not, and intelligence consists in knowing one from the other.

Thomas Jefferson once noted that a nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be. Then again, he didn’t have Google.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a classics and English concentrator, lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.