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The regulations at my university require transferred courses more than 7 years old to be supported by a more recent 'revalidation' that shows the 'currency of [the student's] knowledge [of the subject of the course].' I don't wish to complain, as I've met the requirements in the case of the one ancient course I'm transferring (though apparently there is newly invented paperwork I need to complete). But 7 years seems like a rather arbitrary number, given that most of the knowledge a student acquires in a given course vanishes from his or her head in a month or two.

If our knowledge of everything we have ever passed a course counting towards a degree in needs to be current, surely we ought to be forced to be reexamined for every course we've ever taken after a semester has passed.

I used to believe very strongly that knowledge was about acquiring facts, and being ready to deploy them when prompted. As captain of elementary, junior high and high school academic teams I spent my free time quizzing myself over any factual questions on which I could conceivably be quizzed. And I relished it, primarily as an exercise of memory. And perhaps also as an exercise of spontaneity. Most of those facts, if not all of them, are still in my head today. But plenty of things I've spent far more time on are not in my head in factual form; this includes nearly all of my undergraduate education, and some of my graduate education. They aren't there in factual form because they were not studied that way, and I'm not sure that's altogether a good thing. Adrenaline can burn things into the brain in a way that slow, careful study cannot. It can ensure that you keep hold of the fact, say--which you ought to know, having read the Principia--that Newton's laws were laws of motion, and what they were. It might help you remember--which you would think you would remember, having read the Elements of Chemistry--what Lavoisier's most important discoveries were. I read these things; I was plenty impressed with them at the time; but I don't have the relevant important facts ready to hand. This may well be due to the absence of tests from my undergraduate eduction. Tests help; but timed competitions, I think, help even more.

But, you may object, this whole model of the Student's-Brain-as-Receptacle is becoming outdated. No one ever relies anymore only on stuff in their heads. It isn't as if, released from an institution of learning, we emerge into a desert in which only the contents of our brains determine what we can do. Perhaps it was never true. If all we ever do is try to keep our knowledge 'current,' remembering what we've previously learned, as if the mind were a bowl overflowing with water that one must carry around without spilling--; surely we would never do anything else. The mind is extended now; we need only know where the facts are, and be able to deploy those strategies to continually rediscover them, rather than cramming and racking one's brains.

There are things we ought to be able to recite and rehearse--but only so that they are there when we need them, for some other purpose, for a role in new inquiries, or for practical action (or for non-trivial trivia nights). And there are skills learned in understanding and analyzing what those things are and why they are important. It is easy, in learning and deploying the skills to lose sight of the facts. And while the skills compose the greatest proportion of the impact of education on the individual, the facts are still--for reasons partly cultural--a part of what it seems like it ought to mean to be educated.

*Author confesses to greatly enjoying studying for tests, and to a slight yearning to have at her command the ability to define all of the words in the OED.


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