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Information Overload

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We are today flooded with more information than ever before. A recent Center for Digital Education article quoted futurist Adrian Schofield, manager of applied research for the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering: "Scholars and students will have access to the best materials and content available globally." He is correct. But that explosion of information also means that scholars, educators, and students will also have access to the worst materials and content available globally. We should be wary. History demonstrates that bad data coupled with faulty reasoning produces erroneous, even destructive, results.

For centuries, alchemists believed it was possible to create a substance -- the philosopher's stone -- capable of turning base metals into precious metals, and confer youth and longevity to mankind. The quest for this remarkable substance and the riches and power it might confer shaped the policy of rulers from medieval times to the eighteenth century. Or take the legend of Madoc, a Welsh prince rumored to have discovered the North American continent in the twelfth century. Elizabethan Englishmen used Prince Madoc's colony as evidence to negate Spain's prior claim on North America, but the search became more than establishment of prior claim. European-Americans searched for the Welsh-Indian descendants of Madoc's colony well into the nineteenth century, hoping these descendants would help "civilize" other Native American peoples. Bad data lingered and supported racial stereotyping for years to come: In 1955, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque in memory of Prince Madoc on the shores of Mobile Bay. Nor should we forget that nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientific thinkers cultivated the racial and Euro-supremacist data that justified chattel slavery and helped create eugenics. The measurement of heads, the observation of traits, and the creation of different racial species of human beings produced data with pseudo-scientific rationale and justified the creation of systems for segregation, sterilization programs, and the Holocaust. In fact, eugenics theory is still pervasive and easily accessible on the World Wide Web.

The challenge of our future will not be whether scholars, educators, and students have access to content, but will we have the skills necessary to think critically about these vast quantities of content? Will we possess the reasoning skills necessary to synthesize information in a way that weeds out misinformation? Will we be able to leverage our expanding knowledge to make our world more productive, more secure, and more fulfilling?

We should be worried. Education in the United States has steadily shifted to the "by rote" memorization of facts easily tested on standardized digital assessment tools -- and away from challenging our students to synthesize and analyze information to develop innovative and creative solutions. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that many educators now focus on the process of successful data regurgitation, instead of creating challenging educational experiences for students. And worse, this approach is not producing results. Recent NAEP progress reports for twelfth-grade math and reading schools rate only 26 percent of students proficient in math and 38 percent of students proficient in reading.

Education is of paramount importance to our republic. The American republic is founded on ideas -- ideas of freedom and equality, unity and diversity, private wealth and common wealth, law and ethics. None of these ideas, however, are self-evident. We constantly debate meaning, implementation, and impact. We struggle to make these ideas real in our lives. We use data to help understand and quantify how tangible these ideas are in our communities, our states, and our nation. Our founders created a country built on Enlightenment principles. Enlightened education is essential if we hope to insure the continuation of that legacy. We can educate our children by rote, but we will surely lose the future unless we embrace our enlightenment heritage of reason, logic, and innovation. Make no mistake: unless we teach our children to research effectively, evaluate the veracity of their findings, compare evidence to contrasting data, and draw reasoned conclusions... our republic will fail.