An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.
Although the Internet has changed our information landscape, the definition of education provided by French writer Anatole France* is still valid. Less emphasis now is given to committing information to memory, but the distinction between knowing and not knowing is perhaps even more important.
In one of my earlier career incarnations, I was working in a research group for IT in the construction industry, where I was a generalist in a bunch of very clever specialists. If we were asked for someone to write an article for the organisation’s magazine or if the press wanted an “expert” to quote, I was often called on to be that person. My real expertise at the time was that I had mastered the art of the internet search – which before the advent of Google was a rare skill! I could gather enough information quickly enough to be able to speak with some degree of authority on a topic that I had only just encountered. Of course, it was superficial, but it was sufficient to put the work of our group into the context of industry developments, connect the dots with other initiatives that we were working on, and to identify new areas that we needed to be investigating further. My ability to become the “instant expert” stood me in good stead for quite a few years, and helped me a lot in my work in that role and beyond**.
Now, however, search engines are taken for granted and everyone is an instant expert. The answers to almost everything are at our fingertips. Google has become so much a part of everyday life that we have started to think that somehow we already know what Google knows, that just being able to Google it makes us smarter. I recently saw a painful example of this effect in action. A visiting engineering PhD student was presenting her work to the group I am currently working in. She was struggling with finding a focus for her research and was very open about the problems she was having. A big stumbling block she had faced was finding that the sensor equipment she needed was either wildly expensive, or would measure only a portion of the data she needed. As a result she was having to redefine her project based on the data she was able to acquire, and she was not happy with the prospect.
After her talk, when the floor was open for questions, the first response was not a question, but a comment from another student, from a different university and a different engineering discipline, who proceeded to explain to her that he had “just done some quick research on Google” and found that there was actually a type of sensor that did exactly what she needed and it was cheap and easily available, so why didn’t she use that…? I thought the presenter handled it very well, as she thanked him for the information, and moved on to another question, but I was quietly seething at the arrogance and lack of respect that was implied. Did he really think that she had spent two years on this project and was going through the heartache and challenge of changing her research from the bottom up, without searching the internet to see what was available? How could he think that from a twenty minute presentation and a quick bit of Googling he had enough information to answer a research problem that had the student and her advisers stumped? I also wondered at the quality of his own PhD, that a Google search could produce the overconfidence that allowed him to make such definitive pronouncements about what another student should be doing.
As students, we are often reminded to be critical of what we read, whether in hard copy or online, not to blithely assume that it is relevant or valid. In the same way, I think we need reminding to be critical of what we do with what we read. It is OK to admit that you don’t know something (and to pretend otherwise can make you look a bigger fool). It is not necessary to have an opinion on every subject. Google answers (almost) every question, but delivers only information, not knowledge.
To be an instant expert is to be a consumer, not a producer. We need to respect the efforts of those who have earned the knowledge, and work to become an expert, for real. Now for the Internet age, we could add that education is also being able to differentiate between knowing and knowing how to find out.
*Or maybe American educator William Feather; my Google skills have not found a definitive answer!
**Although it left me with a sad case of Impostor Syndrome… maybe that will be the subject for a future post.