Wearing my various hats, in addition to running Bridegroom Press and Best Catholic Posters, I am an adjunct professor in math, history and religion. As a result, I am able to do interdisciplinary studies without leaving my chair. And in the course of looking at the ways people approach these various disciplines, I am struck by a thought.
If mastering the material in a class means that you either know the answers to a question or you know where to go to get the answers necessary, then students who can demonstrate these two abilities have mastered the class material.
So, what counts as mastery of the material?
Consider the world of the math instructor, for instance. For years now, lower form arithmetic has been taught with calculators, to such an extent that you can now ask college students what 9 * 7 is, and they won't know the answer if they don't have their smart phone calculators with them. As any college math teacher can tell you, I am not making this up. Every semester, I see college students count on their fingers when asked to multiply two single-digit numbers. Even simple addition and subtraction stumps many of them.
Now, these same students can and do pass their math classes. It is not at all difficult for them to do so, given that "best practices" (this is the phrase used) now virtually require math teachers to allow calculators in the math classroom. So, when these same students pass the math course, what does that mean?
Is the innate knowledge of multiplication tables central to math or is it extraneous, rendered as unnecessary as knowledge of how to use a slide rule? Or are we "dumbing down" the math curriculum in order to accommodate people who have been ripped off by a degenerate educational system?
If you argue that it is virtually impossible not to have a calculator at your side now, then you would say they passed the math class on their own.
If that's the case, then what counts as knowledge mastery if the ubiquitous internet puts the information for your humanities course at your fingertips without a trip to the library? Is the e-book now the same as the calculator - an acceptable tool on tests? If not, why not? For example, if MS Word or the Internet will happily format your footnotes and bibliography for you, of what use is it to grade someone's ability to adhere to MLA or APA footnote style? Am I grading the student's grammar abilities, or am I actually grading the grammar abilities of the programmer who devised the word processing software the student used?
Why can't the humanities student access digital resources while taking a test? Math students do. If we insist that group work is important, and we're grading them on group work during the course, then why can't they e-mail or text each other for answers during the final exam? What if there's a chip implant to the body that allows instant Internet information recall or instant student intercommunication? Do you really think this won't happen in the near future?
And when it does, then what does it mean to say that we "know" something?
Humanities instructors around me complain about "cheating" on humanities tests, when the students are really just doing what they have been taught is perfectly acceptable on math tests.
Plato used to complain about books because he felt they were crutches that would ennervate future generations. Men who did not learn to develop and rely on their memories would be weaker for it. I'm not sure he was wrong, but when "memory" has been electronically redefined and expanded, I'm also no longer sure I know what I mean when I quote him.