There is a story about Francis Bull (1887-1974), who was a Norwegian professor of literature. He was particularly famous for his memory. It was a prerequisite for his being able to hold many lectures for his fellow prisoners during the three years he sat in Grini, the Norwegian concentration camp in the Second World War.
After the war, he was riding in a taxi one day. When the driver heard Bull was a professor, he subjected him to an interrogation. The driver asked if Bull knew Henrik Ibsen? And yes, the professor had even known him personally. The driver asked if Bull knew when Ibsen was born? And, yes, 1828. What date? 20 March. Which weekday did 20 March 1828 fall on? Here Francis Bull had to give upů and so came the scorn from the front seat: "and you call yourself a professor?"
First, we are reminded there was a time when knowledge was a scarce good that we hoarded in libraries and archives. Today, knowledge is something we gather for the task at hand and throw away again. There was a time when knowledge conveyed status, and the less-educated were considered empty vessels to be filled. It was this that later - when knowledge was somewhat discredited - had some teachers grumbling about thought-control education, and it was not meant kindly. It was a time when education was largely about the learning of data by rote.
Your columnist remembers from his childhood that his parents could name every Danish market town using rhymes. Where they were located was less interesting. We still gather knowledge. Now on hard drives, not libraries, but hard drives do not inspire the awe that libraries did.
Second, we are reminded that knowledge was once both difficult to obtain and expensive to buy. Encyclopedias are still printed and are apparently saleable. This must be a kind of inertia and perhaps a reflection of aesthetics - books look good on shelves - since the content of these books are freely available and somewhat easier to find online. There are also cautionary rumbles about Google's stupefying effect, which probably reflects the older generation's indignation that the younger generation has so much knowledge placed at their fingertips.
It follows from the general theory of supply and demand that when something becomes plentiful, its price drops. This reflects once again the human tendency to believe that the scarcity is refined, while the abundant is not worth having. Therefore, knowledge used to confer status. It does not any longer, in fact quite the opposite. Terms like 'experience hit' reflect the fact that ignorance has become a virtue. Knowledge is a burden that can stifle creativity. At the risk of sounding pre-senile, your columnist will allow himself to strike a blow for knowledge, including something a politically incorrect as active knowledge and memory of facts.
When knowledge is abundant and easily accessible, it is like saying there are plenty of answers. When there are many answers, it is clear that the art is in asking the right questions. Dennis Healy, a UK Labour politician, said, when Margaret Thatcher came to power: 'If Margaret is the answer, the question must have been stupid.' Agree with him or not, it suggests that the question - excuse me, the "problem formulation" - has become what is important. In all modesty, your columnist will allow himself to remark that you cannot pose intelligent questions out of thin air. It requires a certain amount of knowledge to make intelligent questions, otherwise it is pure lottery. Therefore, in the future, education must accommodate both skill learning and knowledge transfer. Not in the form of old-fashioned rhymes and the recitation of lists of monarchs, but as the first basic condition for asking relevant questions. It is perhaps not so important what young people in schools learn about, as long as they have something on the hard drive that can take them further.
Future knowledge workers must be able to ask questions, but not random questions that illustrate only their lack of education. The future knowledge worker must be knowledgeable just to be able to seek knowledge.
Johan Peter Paludan is co-director of Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. firstname.lastname@example.org