All those little facts, such clutter in a brain, right?

Learning in school already seemed a useless amassing of facts long before internet search engines ever came along.

Historical dates without context; mathematical formulas with little use beyond test questions; grammatical points of foreign languages hardly ever used…

The modern Silicon Valley-ized approach to learning has only reinforced this view.

Calling for a focus on “learning to learn,” all those pesky small details that are so hard to remember seem even less necessary now than ever before – especially when you can just look them up online when and if you need them.

Matt Britt’s partial internet map from years ago: Try finding your way through this without prior knowledge.

Clive Thompson, in his celebration of the knowledge gain from the internet, “Smarter Than You Think” (cross-read here), celebrates the ability to not remember the name of that red-haired female singer with a feminist bent, and to have the name “Tori Amos” pop up easily enough in a web search with just those few details.

In his proof is the problem.

If all you are looking for is a simple fact that sits in the realm of common knowledge, let alone popular culture, then it has become easy enough to quickly find it online and spare yourself the “mental bandwidth” required to record that fact yourself.

There are only too many situations nowadays, however, in which people want to argue that learning is unnecessary as long as the fact can be looked up or the problem can be solved by someone else or something else.

Manners Make Man, Facts Form Faculty

Even when it comes to those facts we so hate to learn by heart, though, we need to know them if there is some way we need or want to dig deeper into the issue in question.

Of course, just learning facts and figures as Jeopardy-style factoids all sitting in separation, with no connection between them, isn’t going to make them well-learnt and useful.

Only knowing where to look up when what event in world history transpired won’t help understand how different events and developments influenced each other over the course of history.

However, learning them in connection requires previous knowledge to connect them to and makes it easier to learn more of them and see more connections.

Being able to quickly look up what formula relates different factors in physics to each other does not imply an ability to see how (and why) a certain formula can lead to a useful result while another cannot.

However, having learned the formulas and their use cases and applied them is the only way to get to the expert knowledge where one intuitively knows what formula needs to be used.

For learning itself, more facts learned in relations and as the stories they tell will help learn and remember yet more, not take away from mental storage space.

In fact, without the scaffolding of previous knowledge, not only would it be difficult to learn anything new, it’s difficult even just to know whether a fact found online is truly a fact or just somebody’s well-presented fiction.

Funnily, the more you know, the more you can actually find where there are gaps in knowledge. Even relatively simple things (or rather, things that seem that way) often do not yet have answers.

Try googling that, then.

You will, of course, need to find out where to spend your time and focus your attention.

Yet, with all the time used for entertainment and all the memory easily expended on gossip and news and assorted pop-cultural geekery, the potential to learn more that will be of greater use in other situations, in (other sides of) real life is there.

“I have always found that it is always good to know something.” Goethe, Talks Shortly Before his Death

And there’s quite enough that it may be good to know.

From languages to first aid.
From survival and self-defense to cooking and, hell, house-keeping.
From the big sweep of history to the little happenings in your backyard and neighborhood.

It’s always been good to know things, and in a time when ignorance seems on the rise as (and maybe partly because) the world’s information seems only a fingertip away, but too few people bother to transform it into knowledge, it only gets better to know.

Next time there’s no internet or the heat goes out in the middle of winter, particularly so.