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Lessons Forgotten/Lessons Unlearned

At one of my graduations I remember a valedictorian delivering a speech where she talked about the importance of education by saying something to the effect that since what you learned could never be lost, or taken away, that it was therefore one of the most valuable things you could acquire.

And perhaps that is true, in some ideal world, such as a Cartesian universe where mind is completely separate from, untouchable, and incorruptible by matter. But for those who live with their feet planted on the soil of the world of experience, where meeting bodily needs for nutrition, sleep, and exercise makes a measurable difference on the permanence of memories – to say nothing of the effects of age, drugs, other poisons, disease, injury or surgery – for those of us in the real world, it is a more difficult problem to count the cost of an education against the benefits it might confer on us.

It should be easy to see, that a clear view of the permanence of knowledge learned has some implications for the value of a college education. And how much more so, with today’s tuition prices, and the frequent difficulty people have in obtaining credit. But when we think more deeply about the age at which a persons mental abilities begin to flower, the value of time, and a young person’s capacity for joy, I think we should also see that how we order the lives of children now in elementary through high school should not be regarded as a settled question.

Schools at every level are better at producing a glamor of education, than they are at actually inculcating information such that it could be available at later times in a student’s life. One example of this is the popular game show challenge, “Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?” Another is Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University.

The lesson is the same, knowledge you are supposed to soak up in school is anything but permanent.

Why is this so?

Is it because the schools are using faddish teaching methods that are poor as compared with the methods of the past? No. Is it because people are just too stupid to be able to keep in their heads all the stuff they try to teach us in school? No, not exactly. Is it just age related mental degeneration? No.

The reason for this impermanence is very simple, a little depressing perhaps, but natural, and probably necessary. It is that people forget things on average very quickly when they do not rehearse them, or frequently occur as important features of their world. That informal statement is a basic description of a measured drop in retention over time, known to memory experts and some (recent) psychology students as the forgetting curve. It is a statistical law which states that the impressions we make on our memory fade rapidly unless they are reinforced at intervals throughout our life. This is the fact about the brain that makes sense of old adages about learning like “use it or lose it.” and the general understanding that learning is based on repetition.

This is a very well defined fact about memory, and it seems to me that it has many profound consequences, not only for figuring the value of a college education, or the worth of the unhappiness of children sent away to elementary schools each day, but also for the consequences of long prison sentences for the possibilities of rehabilitation. It has consequences for what the value of a broad curriculum is, as opposed to one focused on a few very important things. And it forces us to re-examine the value of socialization that schools are supposed to offer as one of their potential benefits.

Be sure to share your own views on all these questions raised.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my own, unfortunate conclusion, that the sheepskin you get at the graduation ceremony probably has a fantastic chance of outlasting much of what you learn those four years in college.

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