It is a mistake to think we don’t need to remember anything, that we can look everything up.
It’s true the Internet is changing the way we think and learn, but the shift to teaching skills, not content, I think, is misguided. In English departments (particularly literature programs) we have been told that the way to make our programs relevant and marketable is to teach skills that students can apply in other contexts, rather than worrying that everyone has read the same set of “classics.”
(Before we start arguing, notice I put classics in scare quotes. And understand that I don’t have a hit list or a canon of literature in mind, really. This is an argument for content, but not necessarily for specific content.)
I do think literature teaches important, transferrable skills. Close reading, understanding the context in which a work was written, analytical writing—all of these are good things and all are very useful across the job market.
But it matters, too, perhaps more than we’ve thought recently, as information changes so rapidly that people don’t bother remembering things, that we fill our heads with cool stories and beautiful works. It turns out that having material in our heads is still important.
Memorizing passages is useful. Reading widely and having lots of stories to consider and connect to one another is vital not just to looking well-read (the appeal of which should not be underestimated among English majors). It matters because we use the material, the stories and experiences we have in our memories, to help us move forward.
There has been work on this in multiple areas recently. In an article on how kids’ reading comprehension increases in step when they have exposure to more subjects and experiences (demonstrating that kids’ comprehension skills improve when they have some knowledge of the subject matter they’re reading), Daniel T. Willingham shows that kids who have broader knowledge develop reading skills faster. The more you know, the better you learn.
Another facet of this is the impact of a rich, full head on creativity. When people aren’t
encouraged to memorize anything because literally every subject can be quickly researched on the Internet, we are making it harder to be creative. Art Markman argues in his book Smart Thinking, that the more knowledge you have, the more material in your mind, the more you can mix things up and create something new. Those with less stuff in their heads have less to play with.
When I teach literature I ask my students to think about what other texts (books, movies, video games, whatever) the text at hand reminds them of. We try to build connections between stories and scenes and characters, so that the next time we encounter a Reluctant Hero, we recognize her. It stands to reason that the more stories we have in our heads, the more access points we have to understanding a new text.
But this has wide application, according to these other studies. The upshot seems to be that the more we read, the better we read; the more we learn, the better we learn; and the more we know, the more we can create.
So go on. Build yourself a beautiful constellation of interconnected stories, images, and facts.
Be your own Google.
And here are links to articles I mentioned. On reading comprehension: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/opinion/sunday/how-to-get-your-mind-to-read.html?smid=fb-share
On creativity and its connection to memory: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201510/creativity-is-memory