Today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reprinted this scattershot story from the Chicago Tribune and headlined it "Is the internet making us duh-mer?"
The underlying question is this: Does increased accessibility of information result in a shallower knowledge base among the populace? Well, of course it does. It's a completely rational choice: Why spend time and effort placing information in your brain's long-term memory, when the long-term random-access memory of the internet already holds it?
The real question is why this rational behavior has resulted in a generation that (to paraphrase all the alarmist stories from the last ten years) can't find China on a map with both hands and a GPS-enabled 3G China-Locator 240Z (tm). And to my mind, the answer is that education has been very slow to evolve in the new information-rich, information-accessible environment. We have a lumbering brontosaurus of a primary and secondary education system that still stresses putting bits of information in students' heads for recall, instead of teaching them critical thinking, connected thinking, and problem solving to use the information they have at their fingertips.
Now I think there is a set of general, broad pictures that everyone ought to place in their personal memory banks in order to put the detailed information available on the internet in instant context. They should know what continent France is on, in what century Europeans discovered the Americas, and in what decades the Vietnam War happened. The closer to the students' own time and place we get, the more detail should appear on that general, broad map; we should have a richer context for the last twenty years in America than we need for the last 500 years in Europe.
By all accounts students are not getting this general, broad picture that will help them use the informational nuggets it's so easy to find online. One could argue that the internet is generally making them lazy, or that it's rotting their brains, or whatever you like. But isn't it also plausible that (once again) the education system isn't helping them distinguish between the framework they need in their heads and the content that hangs on that framework? Which side of the knowledge equation are the tests testing and the teach-to-the-test classes teaching?
Just like you can do more math if you let a calculator do the calculating, concentrating on understanding relationships and developing solution strategies, you can get more education if you let the internet do your storage and retrieval. But we won't see the benefit until the inherently conservative educational system -- and I include everything from primary through graduate school therein -- stands up to the traditionalists (for whom only bits in the memory bank count as knowledge) and stumbles into the nineteen-nineties.