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Thought for the Fortnight
The year was 1947.
It was my first day in first grade – and my class of fourteen or fifteen children had ceremoniously paraded from the kindergarten room to the first-grade room to mark the moment. We were all asked to sit in a circle on our little chairs – and the teacher picked up a very big book and put it in her lap.
I remember the moment to this day.
I actually don’t know whether it was an encyclopaedia or a dictionary. Probably the latter, because encyclopaedias in those days came in many volumes. In any case, she said (the words might not be exact, but the meaning is):
“On this first day of school, I want you to understand and remember something very important. You don’t need to know everything – you just need to know how to find things out.”
It was only a very ordinary neighbourhood public school in Washington, D.C. But what wisdom was passed on in that simple statement!
It has stood me in good stead for the many years since that time.
I didn’t know it then, but I have a terrible memory. I always did. I could never remember dates in history or where all the countries were in South America. I couldn’t remember formulas in science.
Even now, I sometimes can’t remember my multiplication tables. Or how to add 28 and 15. Or what a good friend told me last week.
As we know, this all gets much worse as we grow older, but I am talking about all my life. It was never a plus in school or out. But I always aimed to know how to find out.
For years and years, as we all know, it was difficult to find what you needed or wanted to know. There was rarely any quick or easy solution. But we took that situation for granted.
My parents had an old multi-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica filling one shelf, which always looked dusty and uninviting, so I never used that as much as I could – or should – have.
But, somehow, I did generally work out a way to find out what I wanted to know. I learned which kids knew what sort of information. My older brother, with an excellent memory, was a useful source of help. He still is.
Books with indexes were wonderful. I became very familiar with the dictionary, to check my spelling or the meaning of words. I acquired a thesaurus early on to check possible synonyms for writing essays for school.
You could also phone places up. Remember “Let your fingers do the walking” as an ad for the Yellow Pages telephone directory? That became incredibly useful. Young people nowadays probably don’t even know what the Yellow Pages were.
And then the personal computer got invented, followed by the internet, and everything changed. I can remember getting my first Mac computer in 1985 and what a difference it made to my ability to write quickly and easily.
But much more importantly for ‘finding out’, the invention of the internet and search engines really revolutionised our lives.
Google became my constant friend. You can find out anything there. Where is the nearest place to get shoes mended? Ask Google. Who was the lead actor in a film from the 1940s? Ask Google (or go directly to IMDB). What other roles did he play? Same again.
How do you spell encyclopaedia? When was that Yellow Pages slogan invented? Yup, you guessed it. I checked both of these just now but decided you didn’t need the date.
We are really the first generation to have this tool at our fingertips. How lucky we are. We really don’t need to know anything at all.
We just need to have access to Google (or another search engine) and we can find out just about anything.
I think we should be more amazed about this fact. And we should celebrate it.
A version of this article was first published on SixtyandMe.com