Tiffany Jenkins: How Google makes us less smart

An internet surfer views the Google home page at a cafe in London. Picture: Reuters
An internet surfer views the Google home page at a cafe in London. Picture: Reuters
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Our modern-day propensity to look up everything on the internet has stunted people’s imagination and capacity for learning, writes Tiffany Jenkins

All the known facts and figures in the universe appear to be at our fingertips. The dates of important events, the names of each king and queen of every country, how to get rid of mould in the bathroom, and photographs of the chic white dress worn by Keira Knightley at her wedding: simply everything you could ever want to know about seems to be available at the click of a mouse.

Who doesn’t, in the middle of a conversation, say: “we should look it up”, meaning on the internet? Who doesn’t think to themselves, I must Google it, as they wonder what happened in some medieval war, and who said what in the latest celebrity divorce?

So why, when it appears that everything we could ever possibly want to know is available in seconds, should we learn much of anything 
at all? Why do we need to know things when we can just search for it with a couple of key words? These are the questions asked today. Not just by kids who want to avoid doing their homework, but by educationalists.

It is common to argue that, in the age of the internet, facts and figures are so easy to obtain that they are not worth learning. A related idea often expressed is that things change so quickly that a great deal is soon out of date. But as is so often the case when something is presented as overtaken by technology and old-fashioned, it isn’t. We cannot rely on Google to have the answers, to be the guide to what we know. That so much is online is no substitute for knowing it ourselves.

This isn’t simply about what to teach children, it’s not about education policy, it’s about why we should know facts and figures and about important events from the past, long after we have left school, even university, and not rely on accessing it via the web. This is about the nature of knowledge: what it is, how it is acquired and how it is developed.

The most important argument against the school of “just Google it” is that knowledge comes before understanding. You need to know quite a lot about something: particular details and the multiple and competing interpretations, before you begin to really appreciate the importance of a subject and the questions that remain. Only then do you know what you don’t know but should.

It is the possession of knowledge that prompts significant questions. Without knowledge you don’t think: I will look it up, because you haven’t worked out what you need to research. It is only when you 
have absorbed an area of thought that you begin to really get it and can work out what you think, that is when you can compare the thoughts of the experts to your reading of a situation.

It’s impossible to determine in advance what you will want to know and what you don’t need to know. It is only once you have mastered what is out there to know that you know what is missing.

And knowing stuff means that we can discriminate between what is sensible and right and what isn’t, when we are looking online. 
Not just that we can eliminate the wacky, bonkers theories, but so we can pick apart and question the 
more sophisticated thinking. Realistically, also, as I go through each day, and make a mental note to myself: I must Google this and that, the thought disappears in a moment, leaving me as ignorant as before.

Leaving what we know to finding it out on the web, as when we feel the need, is reactive. It means that 
we do not encounter what we haven’t wondered about or don’t care about, unless we are lucky and stumble upon it. It means that we learn as a consequence of our immediate environment and short-term needs, creating an eclectic bank of information organised on the basis of individual whim, which will have massive gaps.

I would know a lot about Italian food because I love it, but too little about chicken because I dislike it. I would know everything about the paintings of Vermeer, but too little about the universal law of gravity. And I would know a great deal about the Renaissance and World War One, but not much about Mary Queen of Scots and the battles between Scotland and England – because I find them a little bit of a bore – but they are hugely important. Actually, I don’t find them as boring as I used to, because I have done a bit of work – reading and thinking – on these histories, but only because I was encouraged to by others.

Education, or lifelong learning to use a horrible phrase, is as much the product of a relationship as much as your own interest. A good teacher, friend or colleague, in or out of school, points you in unexpected directions, directions that didn’t think of yourself and that you may not want to follow but benefit from doing so. Self-directed learning is all very well, but we need others to push us beyond ourselves and to bring about a more rounded education. To truly learn, to further our knowledge, we need more than a computer, we need people.

And there are other, more basic reasons. As Tony Young points out in his pamphlet on education policy, Prisoners of The Blob, Google’s not much use if you can’t read. Given that about 20 per cent of British children leave school functionally illiterate, that leaves out a significant amount of people. What is more, not everyone has systematic access to the web.

It is conservative to rely on information online. Not everything is available. The school of “just Google it” will not come up with new and original ideas. Knowing stuff is the basis for thinking up the untried and untested. A new idea cannot be found via a search engine. We have to come up with it ourselves, offline.