When I was in fourth grade my parents bought our family the Encyclopedia Britannica, which also came with twenty or so volumes on American history, an illustrated medical encyclopedia, and a three volume dictionary. Though I wasn’t a “reader,” in the span of a few years I had completed every tome, dictionary excepted. I would sit in the bathroom for hours learning about random topics with no particular goal in mind. In many ways, those books were my introduction to education and transformed me as a student; plus, now I’m better than average at bar trivia!
The other day I was listening to Sugata Mitra give a TED talk entitled “Build a School in the Cloud” while doing the dishes after dinner. Mitra is the kind of polymath genius I always wanted to be—a physicist and cognitive scientist working on education, who also happens to be an engaging and convincing speaker. The talk was about research he had conducted in India, testing the possibilities of self-directed learning. After explaining the colonial roots of our education system and why it functions the way it does—basically to produce interchangeable bureaucrats capable of carrying out the Empire’s business—he posed a provocative question. To paraphrase, he asked, what will it mean to live in a world where the knowledge and skills taught at our schools are obsolete?
The premise behind the question is that the skills we learned (the ones my daughter is learning now) were designed to produce a certain type of individual intended to function in very specific kinds of environments. Reading, good handwriting (never really learned that one), quick arithmetic, etc. were all traits necessary for officers of the Empire who might be moved from Mumbai to Canada to Burma. But do they really serve children in today’s world?
Mitra’s idea was reinforced by my daughter a day or so later when she answered a question from me with the self-evident response, “We should just “ask Google.” At seven, my daughter has already learned that there is an online space that, despite its shortcomings, can answer every query. I was both bemused and saddened. Bemused by the perfect logic of her answer; saddened because to someone who grew up in a pre-Google age, her answer points to a future where information isn’t so much learned as recalled. Who needs to be the next Aristotle, putative expert in every known field, when you have Google?
For me, the Encyclopedia Britannica was like an exploration of the wider world, the first footsteps of an ongoing adventure. I felt like I had been given access to a life bigger than my narrow world of sports and suburbia. It’s amazing to think that Google can put all the world’s information at our finger tips, but I wonder what kind of adventures it will spark for my daughter.