In reviewing some of the highlights from the Atlantic's First Draft of History even last week, I'm still impressed by something Google CEO Eric Schmidt said. He was talking about how the Internet will continue to change the way we, you know, [enter any verb].

But I wasn't expecting him to touch on education. And what he said made a lot of sense.


Schmdit was describing how we're less than a decade away from living in permanent wifi hot spots with our web surfing phones or computers. Inasmuch as the Internet is close to the sum of all human knowledge, that means we'd never be more than a search away from any piece of information. Interviewer James Fallows asked him how our teachers should incorporate that glut of information into classrooms. Schmidt responded that, well, they should teach more Google.

"I was required to memorize the counties of Virginia," Schmidt said of his childhood education. "Why did I have to do that?" Because rote memorization is, and has long been, at the heart of early education. But Schmidt questioned whether that makes sense in an age where, to take his example, a full list of the counties of Virginia (and their population, exact area, map, established date, etymology, and FIPS code) is literally a one-second search away, here.

"Let's imagine a class where the professor says there's no textbook," he continued. "For every class I'm going to give you a set of subjects to research [online], and then we're going to have a conversation ... Some would succeed. Some in the class would ask their friends. Some would be asleep at the wheel." In short, he said, we would still see a hierarchy of aptitude but it would be a hierarchy organized under a useful, modern discipline. "Learning how to learn, how to ask questions when you have [all the world's information] in your purse or on your belt, is the next great task."

I don't think Schmidt was calling for the end of textbooks. I think he was calling for the beginning of search engine lessons. And I can't imagine why that wouldn't be a good idea. The Internet, after all, isn't a library with an organized decimal system that requires nothing more than an index card to navigate. It's a wild expansive desert of unreliable information punctuated by certain oases of knowledge, and in ten years, it will be accessible at lightening speed in the pocket of just about every American. If the schools won't provide the compass, who will?

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