Class Warfare Blog

February 4, 2014

Making the Same Mistake Over and Over

In his column today (What Machines Can’t Do, N.Y. Times) David Brooks takes a whack to being a seer, this time looking forward to what mental abilities people will need more of in the future. To wit: “As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.

All of this will turn out to be quite mistaken. Oh, there I go, being a seer myself!

I am basing my opinion on history. Let’s take “Being a straight-A student will be less valuable” and it’s linked idea of “gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests.” Our first college of any note was Harvard. Its goal was to create ministers of religion and maybe a few lawyers and such. To graduate one necessarily had to read aloud from Latin and/or Greek texts, that was basically the culmination/final examination of one’s education. One didn’t need things like biology or chemistry, certainly not computer science or engineering, as they didn’t exist yet. One studied things like rhetoric and philosophy.

What one studies today to get a BA degree is vastly different, even at Harvard. And if all one is doing is “gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests” one is not getting much of an education. My education is 50 years old at this point and while there was a sizeable portion of such “learning,” as I progressed there was less and less of it. Instead we had to take our learning and apply it. (As chemistry majors we joked that a common test question was “show the synthesis of DNA from Fire, Air, Earth, and Water.”) Questions were convoluted and tough. I remembered a senior level course final exam on which I scored 40%. I had the second highest score. We had seen nothing like the questions we got on that test. We were even allowed to use our textbooks. (I didn’t because it was a sign of being clueless.)

Mr. Brooks idea that an education involves little more than the regurgitation of facts leads me to challenge his own education. Was that what his was like?

In any case, what a “straight-A student” is like now is vastly different from any time period in the past and will continue to morph as we move into the future. The whole point of “being a straight-A student” is relevance. If it becomes irrelevant we will have hugely lost our way.

Moving on to “Having a great memory will probably be less valuable.” There is a bit of truth to this but only a bit. This is a common trope amongst people that “you can just look stuff up on the Internet.” A stupid comment if there ever was one. For example: open up a browser window and ask Google how to spell a word you do not know how to spell. Type that word in carefully; just because you don’t know how to spell it is no excuse. I am being clever, but we faced the same thing in grade school when we were encouraged to use dictionaries to help with word spellings. The prerequisite to finding a word in any dictionary was knowing how to spell it.

Studies have shown that the more you know, the easier it is to find what you want to find, no matter the source being searched. So, having a good memory will always be useful, always be prized. This may change when we get around to making small personal devices with near human AIs built in, but I can see the comedy sketches already where artificial intelligences are frustrated by being chained to such stupid humans, humans who can even accurately describe what it is they want their AIs to do.

Predictions a la those of Mr. Brooks have been made in the past. They have been invariably wrong. But we seem to be driven to speculate about such things as the value and kind of an education, even though we haven’t a clue, really, of what the future will hold. What we have learned is that it is important to change what “being educated” means as it does change over time. Apparently, how it will change is anybody’s guess.


  1. I agree, David Brooks suffers from too much self-love.


    Comment by silenceofmind — February 4, 2014 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  2. “Mr. Brooks idea that an education involves little more than the regurgitation of facts leads me to challenge his own education.”

    Actually he is just reinforcing what many on the right do today anyway sans the facts part. I suspect too that this type of job will occur and be much like the “burger flipper” position for many in the tech industry.

    This also recalls how some conservatives tend to view higher education. The Texas GOP platform in 2012 advocated eliminating critical thinking skills from public schools because, I suppose, do manual laborers and service workers really need them?


    Comment by lbwoodgate — February 4, 2014 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  3. Education in, say, 15 years will be interesting to see. Are the interwebs better than trolling through libraries? Arguments can be mounted for both. As a veracious consumer of information i would have loved the webs to have come along a tad earlier… but then again, i’m glad i’d finished uni before all that. I really don’t need the world to see videos of what i did in uni 🙂


    Comment by john zande — February 4, 2014 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

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