I spent part of the snowed-in weekend reading Slate’s comprehensive profile of Aaron Swartz, the computer wunderkid who committed suicide last month while awaiting the outcome of court proceedings stemming from charges that he violated copyright law on a massive scale. The reporting was exhaustive and the writing was crisp; it was more biography than profile and helped put Swartz into context for someone like me, who thus far has primarily been exposed to the story via 140-character accusations from his supporters and detractors.
But on another note, it got me thinking in a different direction. I loved this quote from one of Swartz’s many blogs, written in the summer of 2000, when he would have been heading into the ninth grade:
Seriously, who really cares how long the Nile river is, or who was the first to discover cheese. How is memorizing that ever going to help anyone? Instead, we need to give kids projects that allow them to exercise their minds and discover things for themselves. Instead of stuffing them with ‘knowledge’ we need to give them the power to find out what they want to know.
He’s had (and still has) a point, one that the education system may take decades or generations to catch up to. The knee-jerk reaction among educators is to immediately bemoan the fact that students quickly look whatever they need to know on smartphones and laptops. As someone a hell of a lot smarter than me once said (in a discussion unrelated to this post), the promise of the Internet was that you could know everything, but the reality of the Internet is you don’t have to know anything whatever you need to know is theoretically in your pocket.
If we could reconfigure secondary and higher education to become an exercise in taking collected knowledge into solving problems, if we could do more than simply pay lip service to “developing students’ critical thinking skills,” and if we could actually get students over their fear of failure (and willingness to offer answers only when they are certain they know them), if we could get students interested in learning for the sake of learning (instead of grade collecting and resume building) we may be onto something.
That’s a problem I wish Swartz had lived to help solve.