Core Philosophy

Knowing Stuff

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on March 15, 2022

Originally published on the Higher Ground Education Substack Feed

Several years ago, some intrepid educators produced a documentary called Grammar Revolution. (It features Montessori grammar a fair bit, is very thoughtful and entertaining, and is worth checking out.) There was one moment that really stuck with me, in a way that went beyond grammar. It was when an expert on language is asked by the interviewer whether it is valuable to learn the rules of grammar at all. Why should we bother? Young children come to intuitively, implicitly grasp the grammar of the languages to which they’re exposed. What is really gained by studying that structure explicitly?

“Conscious knowledge”, the expert replies, a bit incredulous, “is an advantage.”

That’s the point I want to pause on in this note.

When we do the work of formally articulating our understanding, of putting words to thoughts, of turning an idea over in our mind—we’re better able to utilize that knowledge in the future. With respect to grammar specifically, this is borne out by research: better writers and speakers have a broader range of explicit knowledge of sentence structures, including the grammatical concepts (prepositional phrase, adverbial clause, subordination, etc.) used to classify them.

Even though the expert’s response may seem like a truism, we live in a world in which it’s commonplace to be skeptical that conscious knowledge is an advantage—not just about grammar, but about anything. Many people believe that skills and know-how are important, that there’s value in being able to think critically, or ask intelligent questions, or follow a logical sequence, or to exercise creativity, or figure something out. But it’s less common to really passionately believe that it’s important to have—not just be able to get, but to have an existing store—of specific, internalized knowledge.

That is, it’s less common to be passionate about consciously knowing stuff. Facts can be googled. The details are less important than the patterns. Relevant knowledge changes quickly. Acquiring knowledge is easy—and so building a knowledge store isn’t that important.

This attitude is part of progressive approaches to education. Critiquing and rejecting it is one of the things that makes Montessori distinct, and it is something that we amplify in our take on Montessori.

There are countless reasons why it is critical to acquire and accumulate knowledge. An illustrative story, from a Letter to the Editor in the Wall Street Journal from several years ago: the letter writer recounted his class with the great chemist Linus Pauling. I quote from it here at length:

Dr. Pauling taught first-year chemistry at Cal Tech for many years. All of his exams were closed book, and the students complained bitterly. Why should they have to memorize Boltzmann’s constant when they could easily look it up when they needed it? I paraphrase Mr. Pauling’s response: I was always amazed at the lack of insight this showed. It’s what you have in your memory bank—what you can recall instantly—that’s important. If you have to look it up, it’s worthless for creative thinking.

He proceeded to give an example. In the mid-1930s, he was riding a train from London to Oxford. To pass the time, he came across an article in the journal, Nature, arguing that proteins were amorphous globs whose 3D structure could never be deduced. He instantly saw the fallacy in the argument—because of one isolated stray fact in his memory bank—the key chemical bond in the protein backbone did not freely rotate, as was argued. Linus knew from his college days that the peptide bond had to be rigid and coplanar.

He began doodling, and by the time he reached Oxford, he had discovered the alpha helix. A year later, his discovery was published in Nature. In 1954, Linus won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. The discovery lies at the core of many of the great advances in medicine and pharmacology that have occurred since.

The moral of the story: creative thinking requires knowledge. Yes, advocates of progressive education are right when they argue that what really matter are the skills we apply to new experiences—creativity, critical analysis, logic. But where they go wrong is in assuming these skills do not require deep knowledge about the world.

If you know something well, that knowledge can fuel novel, creative thinking. It will occur to you as a relevant piece of information when thinking about related problems, or perhaps as a helpful analogy for thinking about another domain. It is source material from which you make further connections in thought and life.

Conversely, if you have to look something up, then it isn’t intuitively available to you as part of a creative process, and can’t shape your thinking. What you don’t know can’t occur to you.

Thinking skills, know-how, creativity, problem-solving—all of these things require the acquisition of a tremendous amount of knowledge. It’s a myth that you can simply impart problem-solving skills in someone and then have them look up all the actual facts they need to know on Wikipedia. Acquiring knowledge—well-understood, well-organized facts that are committed to memory and accessible instantaneously—is a critical part of developing creative thinking, logical reasoning, and a life-long love of inquiry.

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.