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Glenn Swanson: What do you know — I mean really know?

As a history teacher, I can pontificate on large “laws,” like: It’s not so important what is true as what people think is true. Not particularly deep, but as those of you who follow the political process know, “facts” seem to be smorgasbord items and at the worst, imaginary items.

However, that profound thought is not my focus today. At the beginning of this school year I came up with two more “laws,” the second of which was: We now don’t need to “know” anything because everything is Google-able.

The implications of that glib thought, a hypothesis really, has been tested during the year. One result was the Socratic conclusion by some students that they did not need to study; so some didn’t. One unstated caveat when tests came around was that they were not allowed to use the Google search function for tests, which, of course, led to some discussion about the value of tests, and indeed grades in general, to say nothing of the conclusion that it’s “not fair.” Always a fun banter! Interesting to hear the better students decry the idea of no formal grades as they feel the implications when they want to compete for places in competitive colleges.

Traditionalists must be wringing their hands over the further decline or ending of the canon of literature or history that this “law” implies. Teaching will increasingly move toward the skill of finding and communicating information that represents learning. The optimists think that this kind of engagement with information will promote deeper understanding and active learning, cooperative interaction rather than isolated study.

Pessimists might feel the activities in this kind of learning are less rigorous, too focused on immediate enjoyment rather than long-term learning.

School, up to a point, is required, so we have to deal with these issues. As to technology, young people are referred to as digital natives, those of us in previous generations as immigrants.

Many of us as older folks (I have Medicare so that’s a clue about my digital immigrant status) are in fact more comfortable with many of the educational aspects of technology than our students, although I am happy to let my teenage children configure my phone for me. We are worried, though, about the lack of interest in learning. Why bother learning if everything is Google-able? Traditional study detracts from time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

When a parent can state that the child is not interested in learning and does not interact well with adults, to say nothing about lacking effort for schoolwork, and that it is the school’s or a teacher’s job to fix this problem, we are not looking hopefully at the future. We have become accustomed to assigning blame rather than finding solutions.

And yet teachers are optimists, so they trudge along, sometimes making a diamond out of a lump of coal, sometimes feeling the sow’s ear is nothing but a sow’s ear, never to become a silk purse. But they keep searching. Sometimes the success appears after a generation has passed, and the teacher may never know it happened.

The next class I teach will have both new and old challenges, perhaps representing another “law” for me to add to my list. Whatever the challenge, I will work with it.

Oh, and my first new law this year?

Everything comes back to Hitler. Now that’s because I have been teaching a course on Hitler and Nazi Germany for 40 years, so the subject is forever coming up. And then someone sent me the other day, randomly, OED’s Godwin’s Law: A facetious aphorism maintaining that as an online debate increases in length, it becomes inevitable that someone will eventually compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.

So much for my attempt at creating a profound insight. I should have known; everything is Google-able.

Glenn Swanon is assistant head for special projects at The Williston Northampton School in Easthampton.

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