Knowledge, and what it means to have knowledge, is changing.
You can recite pi to 20 digits? Cool, I can use my phone calculator. You’ve memorised half the Latin dictionary? Cool, I’ll translate it online. You know all the neural pathways of the body? Cool, I’ll Google it. The point is not that these facts have lost their power, more that the act of memorising them is no longer important. The difference between you and I is that you know how to use pi. A linguist can speak the latin words into existence. A surgeon knows those neural pathways and can view them in their brain like a map. But, when it comes down to the actual, core, knowledge, who cares if it’s memorised or not?
I am in my second year of university, and down to sheer luck—and a global pandemic—I have not sat a single in-person test or exam. In fact, the last time I was examined on how well I memorised something, was in June 2018, a good three years ago. Since then, I have, of course, changed, and have developed a new relationship to academia and knowledge. In high school, I was willing to give up all my time and happiness in order to memorise content to achieve the best grades. However, I don’t think that my education over the past two years has been affected by my lack of memorising content. By being able to focus on learning the course rather than memorising facts, I believe I have much more holistic overviews of what I have been studying lately, as opposed to knowing a prescribed list.
The literature on this subject speaks a similar story. As teacher Ben Orlin suggests in his Atlantic article, memorisation takes the focus away from understanding of a subject, promoting ‘mindless recital’ instead. Confucius himself advocated for moving away from rote-learning, and towards understanding and applying one’s education to one’s own life. In their 2020 paper Han, Chen and Tan suggest that learning through curiosity allows learners to create their own pathway and better engage with learning.
Knowledge is fascinating. Learning is incredibly captivating. But what is the point of being examined on this in a closed book setting? Knowledge no longer means having an ability to memorise these facts, because it is no longer important to. If I can Google something and find it backed up by a scholar much more clever than I, why should I not? The internet does not devalue knowledge, rather, it makes it more accessible, easier to reach and view and touch and interact with. The world around us is endlessly fascinating because of the way it links together. Separating it down into individual, sterile, facts, is an insult to a universe that is so full of wonder and information.
A linguistic view of language states that groups use ‘in’ language to hold their knowledge within their cohort, to avoid sharing their knowledge outside their social bounds—because knowledge is power. The internet means that knowledge is no longer just for the elite few, those who can afford it and have access to the systems and languages and social groups that afford them the opportunity. Sharing knowledge from the core of our universe is a beautiful thing that allows for discourse, open conversation, and collaboration. Examining students on knowledge by asking them to memorise abstract facts and concepts, suggests that it is more important to reduce this beauty and hold the knowledge to oneself, than to share and grow and move in the space that the internet creates.
The idea of a closed book exam, where one cannot use the internet to grow and speak and develop one’s ideas, doesn’t make educational sense. We should be encouraging collaboration, open-minded learning, and an approach to learning that celebrates curiosity, problem solving, and interaction with a wide range of resources and situations.
 Han, R., Chen, K., & Tan, C. (2020). Curiosity‐driven recommendation strategy for adaptive learning via deep reinforcement learning. British Journal of Mathematical and Statistical Psychology, 73(3), 522-540.