''You Can Always Look It Up''… or Can You?

E.D. Hirsch (2000)

The progressive theory that students should gain knowledge through a limited number of projects instead of by taking courses in separate subjects is based on the following reasoning. If you learn a bunch of facts in separate, academic courses you will passively acquire a lot of inert, fragmented knowledge. You will be the victim of something called “rote learning. “But if you engage in integrated, hands-on projects you will achieve integrated, real-world knowledge. By this more natural approach you will automatically absorb the relevant facts you need.

Hirsch mentions this theory in order to dismiss it.  In order to illustrate to my freshman English students the difference between how to earn good grades in high school and how to earn good grades in college, I have emphasized the difference between memorization for the purposes of spitting it back, and studying (without necessarily memorizing) definitions of literary terms for the purpose of using them to help enrich one’s literary interpretations.  I have even explicitly stated that I teach within the assumption that students can look up information, and that they should write with a similar assumption, so a student doesn’t earn many points for summarizing something that can be looked up easily. 

In an upper-level class, students have read a lot of sources dealing with oral, manuscript, and print culture, and the sources frequently refer to each other, so I’ve been asking students to demonstrate they can synthesize. But Hirsch reminds us that you have to know the material first in order to synthesize it usefully.