A place for everything but nothing new under the sun.

The fourth myth which Daisy (Christodoulou) examines in Seven Myths About Education is the one that says that remembering things is unnecessary because the mechanisms exist to allow information to be looked up. Daisy points out at the beginning of her chapter on this myth that it did not originate with the invention of the internet but I still found myself raising an eyebrow when I came across evidence of its being pedalled in the late eighteenth century. In her quirky and fascinating book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, Judith Flanders writes that the late 1700s saw ‘the emergence of a new phrase in the English language: ‘a walking encyclopaedia’.’ To be described thus was not a compliment. Indeed, it signified contempt for the person on whom it was bestowed, as one who did not understand that an excellent memory had been made redundant ‘by alphabetical order, by indexes, by catalogues and by encyclopaedias’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who still believed in the value of memory, found himself the subject of much ribbing as a result. In Headlong Hall, his novel of 1816, Thomas Love Peacock features a Coleridge-like character called Mr Panscope, a ‘chemical, botanical, geological, astronomical, mathematical, metaphysical, meteorological, anatomical, physiological, galvanistical, musical, pictorial, bibliographical, critical philosopher, who had run through the whole circle of sciences, and understood them all equally well; that is, not at all’.

Of course, Socrates famously worried that the act of writing things down would degrade memory. Perhaps in saying this he was reacting to a version of the myth that existed even in his day. However old this false idea, it is surely time for it to be entirely abandoned. If you need any convincing on that point, I cannot recommend chapter four of Seven Myths About Education highly enough. And do read the rest of the book too.