Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What do I remember?

Can I tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday?  If I do, will what I say be correct?  How about dinner the previous night?  When did we last see each other?

Lately, research has been showing the holes in our memory.  A man bursts into a lecture hall and fires (blank) shots at the speaker who falls down.  The man runs out.  How tall was he?  Was he left handed?  What sort of shoes did he wear?  That is just perception and acquisition of information but at that step, errors can definitely be made.

We went on our second date years ago.  I remember the white jeans she wore.  What do I remember of the top?  What did we have for dinner?  Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold remember with fondness that evening long ago, except for the time, the month, what color dress she wore.  "Ah, yes, I remember it well".  

Ok, but what about school?  How to extract a square root is my fallback example.  Some people didn't learn any algorithm for finding what number times itself equals 7 but others learned to use a radical sign, √, while others learned to simply try a likely number and keep trying larger and smaller numbers to the desired accuracy.  

But that was math and these days we all use calculators or computers anyhow.  Let's switch to geography: where is Egypt?  Where is Botswana, where women were first allowed to inherit property just last week?  Didn't ever study that?  How about the US, which is the more northern, Massachusetts or Rhode Island?

We spent all that time, did all that homework and we don't remember now?!  Yikes!  Sister Edith, a Benedictine sociologist on Twitter, reports just finishing a MOOC (mass open online course) and wonders how much she will retain, despite having passed the tests.  There are probably some other fine works on adult retention of schooling but the one I refer to is The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, a well-known professor of education.  

Since knowledge is changing so fast, the concept of schooling being an engraving of truth in the brain that will serve over a lifetime is getting silly.  It seems that schooling is more of an exploration and a developing familiarity with exploring and one's self as an explorer.  I may know that I once knew about Egypt, having done a report in the 4th grade or a paper in college.  I may know a cousin who traveled there and remember her reaction and her pictures.  Those experiences may help me feel closer to Egypt than to Fiji, if I have had little to do with that island.  Still, the experience of having learned some about Egypt may give me some confidence that I can learn about Fiji, too.

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