What it Means to be Knowledgeable

Schooling (at whatever level it is experienced) is intended to help students become knowledgeable. Being knowledgeable is a construct we could spend many pages exploring, but let’s assume that whatever readers might have in mind is a sufficient proxy for this multi-dimensional aspect of human life.

The nature of knowledge has changed over the course of human history, and the rate of that change has been accelerating in the decades since digital electronic tools and information have been affecting human brains, organizations, and cultures. In the closing months of World War II, Vannevar Bush (1945), who had served as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, published “As We May Think” in Atlantic Monthly.

This article is well-known for summarizing the state of knowledge at the beginning of the digital age; it also references the information landscape we now know as “web 2.0” with users creating and consuming their way through the sea of information. I find the last paragraph of the article one of the most important for educators.

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Bush, Vannevar (July 1945). “As We May Think”. The Atlantic Monthly 176 (1): 101–108.

Bush seems to understand that the tools we have allow humans to transfer some of of our cognitive problems to our environment. We download memory to books; we transfer complex computations to electronic devices. One of the biggest challenges for educators appears to be understanding that knowing how to use the tools in our environment are (and always has been) valuable supports for our cognitive processes.