I had dinner with a friend recently. During the course of the conversation, he mentioned that he had never been to Los Angeles, the capital of California—or so he insisted. “Los Angeles is great,” I replied, “but the capital of California is Sacramento.” A brief debate ensued, settled shortly by Siri, the endearing, slightly robotic voice of the iPhone. Siri not only confirmed that the capital of the great state of California is Sacramento, but she also offered (unprompted) the city’s current weather, median home price, and average daily traffic delay.
Then, I flashed back to my nine-year-old self and the two weeks of fourth grade I spent memorizing fifty state capitals. My mother’s helpful mnemonics (e.g., the capital of New Hampshire is Concord, because Old Hampshire was “conquered”) came back to me as if she’d invented them yesterday. If I’d known then that someday my phone would be able to supply all fifty states and capitals on demand, would I have spent so much time committing those cities to memory? Would my teacher have asked me to? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The bigger question
What’s more interesting to me is where Siri’s knowledge stops. Because the next question we had for her was, “Why is Sacramento the capital of California?” A reasonable question—and one the fine people of Sacramento probably get fairly often, as do the residents of Albany, New York, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Siri was stumped. Helpfully, she offered to search the web for us, which yielded much more detail. Suffice it to say, the city’s importance during the Gold Rush and its inland position (safe from seafaring invaders) played critical roles.
Which leads me to my point: what are we teaching our students, and why? In the limited amount of class time we have, is memorizing fifty state capitals how we want to spend it? Or would we rather engage learners in why and how the capital of California ended up being Sacramento? Why the Gold Rush mattered? Why California’s residents would fear invaders anyway?
Let’s teach students to think critically
As more and more of us carry the sum of all human knowledge in our pockets, information itself becomes commoditized. But thoughtful human reasoning will always be valuable—at least until we can teach Siri to think critically about the nuances of human history and existence (a ways off, since she can barely direct me from my home to my sister’s home). Let’s teach our students to sift through the vast sea of information available to them; to analyze multiple viewpoints and determine which is most credible; to evaluate the strength of others’ arguments and form their own; and to analyze data with a skeptical mind, challenge certainties, and generate elegant solutions to problems.
Because thirty years from now, I’d rather not live in a nation run by people whose knowledge of the world is limited to the capital of Maryland. (Hint: It’s not Baltimore…)