We have all heard this from our students: “Why do I have to know [fill in the blank] when I can just look it up?” Today’s undergraduate students have come of age seeing their phones as an extension of themselves; their sense of self too often shaped in part by their browsing history and the responses to their own postings.1 They do not see the point of learning information if it is at their fingertips. According to a recent survey by Common Sense Media, over 50% of children have their own smart phone by the age of 11.2 With phones always within reach, our “look it up” culture has socialized kids to see the internet rather than their brains as the place to store and retrieve information.3 If students have instant access to information, do they really need to make any cognitive effort beyond looking it up? Couldn’t their energies be used elsewhere in a more creative form? An easy answer to this is to emphasize that we don’t want students to memorize information either. Instead, we want them to engage with it, creating connections with material that is already organized in long-term memory. I have used the game, Barrell of Monkeys, to explain to my past freshman seminar students how information moves into long term memory in the brain; new pieces of information must be hooked onto existing knowledge structures or else they becomes like flecks of skin ready to peel off when they have outlived their purposes. Looking information up without further engagement leaves students literally and figuratively “empty-headed.”
But there is a more costly outcome to our “look it up” culture than a loss of knowledge and the critical thinking skills that it takes to organize it; it is robbing students of character formation. The Bible is full of verses reminding us about the importance of renewing our mind, how we think, and what to think upon. Needless to say, thinking is an important part Christian faith. But there is one verse, a proverb, that is important to ponder regarding the purpose of thinking; Proverbs 23:7a. There are two ways that this proverb is usually translated:
For as he thinks in his heart, so [is] he. (NKJV)
For he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. (NIV)
In whichever way its interpreted, thinking is linked to being. René Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” has been hammered by Philosophers and Psychologists for privileging thinking as central as proof of human existence and for creating a mind-body dualism that is reminiscent of the church’s early gnosticism. It is safe to say that in most psychology courses, when Descartes is mentioned, he serves merely as a foil in discussions of a more wholistic biopsychosocial approach to mental health and flourishing. While we might dismiss “I think therefore I am,” as simply a touchpoint in the history of Philosophy, we cannot dismiss that thinking informs our self-construct; “I think so that I am.”
Most of us are familiar with Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy for categorizing educational goals, which has remembering and recall as the bare-bone basics of what constitutes learning. The taxonomy is usually presented as a pyramid with remembering as the foundation, building through the verbs to understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate, with create as the most complex type of learning engagement. The taxonomy is important as it helps us to think through diverse and scaffolded student learning outcomes. But for Christians who believe in the ultimate purposes of God’s kingdom, the taxonomy does not make room for learning that shapes character. A kingdom-oriented taxonomy would include practicing wisdom.
The Philosopher Jason Baher summarizes wisdom as having both an epistemic dimension and a competence dimension. He writes that “a wise person characteristically (1) knows what is ultimately good or important in life, (2) understands how life works or how other elements of life stand in relation to what is ultimately good, and (3) is competent at applying this perspective to new or particular contexts or questions.”4
By this definition, we cannot shape the intellect apart from questions of ultimate purposes and ultimate purposes cannot be understood apart from a trained mind that knows how to think and has something in it to think about.Epistemological virtues such as humility, intellectual courage, empathy and open-mindedness are necessary to build robust knowledge structures. Cultivating moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance as well as the fruit of the spirit are necessary to inform and shape those knowledge structures, including the ones related to how we think about ourselves.
In Christian higher education we often discuss our role as shaping intellectual as well as moral virtues. While rightly aspirational, the attempt can seem half-hearted at times. When there is intentional cultivation of these practices, the responsibility is often bifurcated by housing the intellectual virtues within academic divisions and character, narrowly defined as moral virtues or spiritual formation, within the areas of the chaplain’s office or student development. But I think we are missing the chief relationship between these two sets of virtues. They are not additive; shaping moral virtues is not merely a “value add” to our educational mission. Instead, the practice of wisdom requires an integrity to character formation that is both morally and intellectually oriented. Without developed knowledge structures, students do not have the cognitive raw material to engage with questions of what is right, good, beautiful, or true. Without moral virtues, students lack the motivation to care about the answers.
Professors in higher education cannot assume that their students are prepared to learn content at the very basic level of remembering. But changing teaching strategies to address this deficit also opens the opportunity to restructure courses to include the cultivation of wisodm as foundational to learning across the curriculum. Philosopher Shawn Floyd made such an argument for this type of general education in Christian Scholar’s Review back in 2007.5 His reasoning for intentional cultivation of virtues and suggestions for curriculum changes are even more compelling in our digital age. The study and practice of wisdom is not the purview of Philosophy alone. I would like to see all academic departments and student life divisions be intentional in cultivating wisdom. While it is perhaps the most cognitively complex learning outcome, it should not be treated as aspirational but foundational to the learning process.
It would be a mistake to think that bypassing memorization frees students up to focus on higher-order learning outcomes. Reliance on information at one’s fingertips is not only starving our students’ intellect but their souls. There is no wisdom to be found in merely looking things up.
- Carolyn Cunningham, Social Networking and Impression Management: Self-Presentation in the Digital Age (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013).
- Adrian Ward, “Supernormal: How the Internet Is Changing Our Memories and Our Minds.” Psychological inquiry 24: 4 (2013): 341–348.
- Jason Baehr, “Wisdom, Suffering, and Humility.” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 53:3 (2019): 403.
- Shawn Floyd, “Morally Serious Pedagogy.” Christian Scholar’s Review 36:3 (2007): 245–261.
I didn’t have to look anything up to catch the error in this line:
” Looking information up without further engagement leaves students literally and figuratively “empty-headed.” No, it does not leave them “literally” empty-headed. It may leave them literally ignorant, or ill-informed, but there will still be a brain in their heads.
Thanks, however, for an otherwise thought-provoking article.
Thanks for the reminder of Baher. It’s applicable on various levels. And yes, creative play between empty handed and empty headed. Jp