8 Reasons We Still Need to Know Things

Man taking in knowledge through a book

When I was in elementary school, if you wanted to know something, you looked it up in an encyclopedia. Well, you first determined which volume of the encyclopedia you needed because attempting to store all of the world’s knowledge in one place required a dozen or so books.

a set of encyclopedias

Soon, however, Microsoft came out with Encarta, a CD-ROM encyclopedia that condensed all those books onto a handful of compact disks. Suddenly, all that knowledge was accessible from your home computer. As a young nerd, I loved it.

But within just a decade, Encarta would be eclipsed by the internet. Google and Wikipedia became the repositories of humanity’s knowledge. And then smartphones made sure all of this information was constantly available, literally at our fingertips.

This trend seemed to culminate in late 2022 with the release of large language model AIs like ChatGPT. Although AI is an infant technology, what it can do is astonishing. What it seems to know is astonishing.

And it begs the question, if Google or ChatGPT can answer all of our questions, why do you need to know anything?

a person on their smartphone

Do We Really Still Need to Know Things?

I often write about how the true purpose of school isn’t to acquire knowledge, but rather to develop a variety of skills and strengths that will serve you throughout life. And for the reasons described above, the acquisition of knowledge is tempting to dismiss as unimportant or outdated.

But I do actually think that it matters. Having Google and AI at our fingertips has certainly changed things, but acquiring knowledge is not a waste of time. In fact, it might actually be more valuable than ever.

The purpose of knowing things isn’t to simply have the answers to questions. The true value of knowledge has more to do with curiosity and creativity, understanding and wisdom.

So here are eight reasons why we still need to know things. The first few are fairly obvious, but the rest are, I hope, a bit surprising.

1. Procedural Knowledge

Not all knowledge is simply factual. Much of what we know is procedural. And while you can look up procedural knowledge online, you typically have to do it yourself. ChatGPT can’t mix chemicals together in a lab. YouTube can’t bake a cake or ride a bike. Google can’t hook up an IV. For now, at least, such things have to be done by people.

Procedural knowledge takes practice. It’s not enough to understand how to do it, you have to work toward mastery. You obviously wouldn’t want your surgeon looking things up mid-operation, but you also wouldn’t want them to be a beginner.

two surgeons performing an operation

Now, school does ask students to acquire and practice procedures that computers can perform for us: math calculations, writing essays, balancing chemical reactions, etc. So what’s the point of learning these things if algorithms can do them?

The answer is brain exercise. Procedural knowledge, like solving quadratics and writing research papers, is logical. So learning and practicing the methods expands your capacity for logical reasoning, which is highly valuable.

2. Asking the Right Questions

If you’ve ever watched a 6th grader try to Google something related to their homework, then you know that asking questions of the internet is a skill that many children, despite being tech natives, are lacking.

Partly, there’s a need for training. Tools like Google and ChatGPT don’t know who you are or what your goal is, so it can be challenging to ask a question that will give you the answer you’re looking for. For example, if this 6th grader’s homework is about the gut’s microbiome, their search will likely yield information that’s far too advanced. Adding the phrase “middle school science” to the search should help.

But in addition to learning the skill of searching effectively, there’s also a need for greater background knowledge. Without some knowledge, you might not even know which questions to ask.

A woman at a laptop looking lost

You’ll often be lacking critical context, and your search will be fruitless. For example, if you ask Google about the Russian Revolution, it could give you information about the 1905 revolution or either of the two 1917 revolutions. Which one do you care about? You have to specify.

Your search also won’t go well if you don’t know that there are multiple meanings to the word you’re using or that the topic you’re researching appears, by the same name, in multiple academic fields. “Energy,” for instance, has a different meaning in physics, biology, environmental science, and psychology.

3. Critically Judging the Answers

A meme of Abraham Lincoln saying "If you've read it on the internet, it must be true."

Having some knowledge about what you’re looking up online also helps you determine whether or not you’ve found a legitimate answer. It’s hard to reality check the answers you get if you’re completely ignorant about the topic.

But Chris, if I start out ignorant of the topic, how am I supposed to get the basic knowledge I need to research online effectively?

Good question.

Whenever possible, don’t start online. Start with the in-class lesson or a teacher-provided resource, such as a handout or a textbook. Or ask your teacher for an online resource that is legitimate and at the right level. They might recommend something like Crash Course World History or the Amoeba Sisters.

Okay, those are the basic reasons. Now on to the good stuff.

4. Curiosity

Two kids curiously learning about nature

The next big reason we still need to know things is because knowledge makes us curious. This is because the more you know, the more you realize you could know. Or, as John Wheeler put it:

“As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”

Discovery fuels the desire for more discovery. Every answer you find leads you to more and deeper questions. Exploring the frontiers of what you know and of what we know, as a species, is an essential part of being human.

a person silhouetted against the Milky Way

And as I’ve discovered with birding, a bit of knowledge leads to greater interest, leading to even more knowledge and engagement, eventually leading to passionate curiosity.

5. Knowledge is Not the Same as Understanding

It’s one thing to see facts on a screen. It’s an entirely different thing to understand those facts.

And what good are the facts if they don’t make sense to us?

True learning isn’t just being aware of information or even memorizing it; it’s understanding the meaning of the facts.

We achieve understanding by building on what we already know and by making connections to other ideas. We use similes and metaphors to make sense of new information, and doing so requires that we have preexisting knowledge.

Thus, the more you know the easier it is to learn.

6. Creativity

an older man tinkering with various electronic parts

My favorite reason we still need knowledge is that it makes you more creative. This is because all human creativity falls into one of two categories (sometimes both):

  1. A preexisting idea is enhanced or altered in some way. (Bicycle → Mountain Bike)
  2. Two or more preexisting ideas are combined to create something novel. (Laptop + Cell Phone + iPod = iPhone)

(I challenge you to think of an example of creativity that doesn’t fit into at least one of those categories.)

Thus, your ability to innovate depends on having knowledge: ideas to build off of and ideas to mix together. Learning, both deeply and broadly, gives your mind a bank of ideas to draw upon when a creative solution is needed.

The more you know, the more creative you can be.

7. Focus and Direction

a couple on a hike using a map to find their way

Another reason we still need to know things is that, without some knowledge, it’s very difficult to know what’s important. And if you don’t know what’s important to you, how will you choose what to focus on? How will you know what direction to go?

Studying history is a good example of this principle. If you were to sit down with a history textbook and read the 20-page chapter on the French Revolution, there’s a good chance you would get lost in the details. The story is complicated, with many characters, events, dates, and places that might be important. Without background knowledge – if you didn’t start by reading/watching a brief summary – you won’t be able to sort what matters from what doesn’t.

Modern life provides us with way too much information and way too many options. To navigate the modern world effectively, you need a mental filter, and it’s impossible to craft a good mental filter without knowledge.

An effective mental filter can quickly recognize and latch onto the information that matters, discarding the rest. A good filter takes the myriad of options you have and sorts the valuable opportunities from the time-wasting distractions.

a smartphone displaying numerous apps

8. Wisdom

In the past, knowledge was power, or at least, a great source of power. And until recently, that knowledge was difficult to come by. It required expensive and often exclusionary schools. It could only be found in books or in talking to experts, both of whom were rare.

But now knowledge is incredibly abundant and freely accessible. With the device in your pocket, you can access more knowledge than anyone living 50 years ago could have, even if they had access to the very best schools, libraries, and scholars. So what matters today is not what knowledge you have access to but what you choose to do with that knowledge.

And getting that part right takes wisdom.

an old woman laughing with joy

Wisdom is a specialized type of knowledge. It can be acquired via personal experience (often painful) or it can be learned from others. Either way, the cultivation of wisdom is a lifelong endeavor. Personally, I make a point of taking in a bit of wisdom each morning. It helps me make better choices throughout the day, and it encourages me to reflect deeply on how I’m living my life.

Robots and AI might one day attend to all of our needs and solve all of our problems, but they’re not doing that right now, and they might never reach that level. And, even if they could do everything for us, they cannot live our lives for us. Knowing how to do that well will always remain essential.

In an era when knowledge is abundant, wisdom is paramount.

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