If you have watched Jay Leno go “Jaywalking,” you are probably aware of a remarkable truth: lots of grown-ups today lack a good grasp of even basic facts, like the name of the first man to land on the moon, what photosynthesis does, or the party affiliation of the current Speaker of the House.
You may ask, “What’s the problem here? I can Google facts like these on my smart phone in a pinch.”
But—and here’s where the danger lies—do you? Often times, you are in situations (say, in the classroom, at a job interview, or in discussions on a college campus) where you have to use just what you have in your head. You must answer questions or speak to important topics using only the resources immediately at your mind’s disposal. There’s no time to look anything up.
If the library of your mind is low on facts, how will you successfully engage in critical thinking? If your history teacher did that, if he had a vague idea of the events that lead to the Civil War but things got really murky when it came to just which states fought for the Union or the Confederacy, it would give his students’ a shaky foundation, one that could hinder every future discussion they might have regarding this critical period in American history.
So here’s the point.
Reason suggests that first we learn; for example, we learn historical facts (and this, instead of relying on our pocket gadgets to output the facts for us). Then we can do what our history teachers and great thinkers have always done—think thoughtfully about those facts.
Before you graduate high school, there are certain facts you should know. (Note: certainly, there will be some open spaces on the shelves in your mind’s library, but even having a sense of what should go there gives you awareness enough to do well in the scenarios listed above.) You probably have a good sense of what these might be—they fall under the same well-rounded umbrella reflected in your high school curriculum (i.e., geography, history, economics, a smattering of math, key moments in literary history, etc.)
For example, how many times have you had to use the quadratic formula this year? Depending on your major, multiply that number times at least 300; that’s how many times you’ll need it in college.
Do you know your state representatives? This information is easy to find and important to know if you’re going to engage, compellingly, in political dialogue.
Do you have a good grasp of Spanish verb tense endings? (In my own experience in college, being able to whip out all these endings from memory saved me loads of time).
How about the chemical equation of photosynthesis?
Knowing some of this information will help you directly—to do your work more quickly. Having other facts at your immediate disposal will ensure you have the context to dig into larger works; to skip beyond doing basic research and dig right into more meaty lines of inquiry when you’re answering homework questions or working on group projects. Finally, knowing other facts will inform both conversation and standout writing in the academic setting.
Here’s a tip, along these lines: if you struggle to memorize certain types of information, say, information in equation form, try physically representing equations. Doing this can help you better understand the process the equation is trying to illustrate. Take photosynthesis for example; it’s not just a bunch of carbon and oxygen molecules floating around on the page. It’s the reverse of regular human respiration. When you or I take in a breath of air, we consume oxygen and mix it with our body’s glucose; then we breathe out water and carbon dioxide. By contrast, plants take in carbon dioxide and water (the stuff we output), combine it with energy from the sun, and create oxygen and glucose (the stuff we take in).
What facts are you stockpiling in your head? While sports stats, song lyrics and key moments in the life of your favorite actor are fun to know—and definitely contribute to conversations about our culture—you can do better.
Meagan Phelan holds an M.A. in Science Writing from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. She has freelanced as a science writer and is a Fulbright Scholar. She currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe risk modeling firm based in Boston.
Do we rely too heavily on the internet for fact-finding? In doing so, are we losing our ability to grasp, retain, and relay information?
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