Once upon a time, we went to school to learn things. We learned facts, we took tests about them, we filed them in whatever part of our brain keeps facts, and then we went on about our business. We figured that once we’d learned something, that was that.
Somebody keeps changing the rules.
Once in another lifetime I was a biology major, so I knew something about science, or so I thought. But there are a whole lot of things that nobody mentioned, like quarks. According to Wikipedia (which also did not exist—I grew up with multiple volumes of The Encyclopedia Britannica), “There are six types of quarks, known as flavors: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top.” I’m pretty sure I would have remembered those, had I ever learned about them, because the names are so funny. But of course I didn’t, because no one discovered them until after I left high school. Oops. I guess I haven’t needed them, unless I ever get to appear on Jeopardy.
Which I almost did once, but that’s a different story. But almost every time I watch that show, I am reminded that whatever geography I once knew is now mostly incorrect. Somebody keeps renaming countries, sometimes more than once. And they keep moving the boundaries. (Oh, all right, the U.S. details haven’t changed a lot—I think I’m just geographically challenged.)
I was struck once again by the shifting (or do I mean shifty?) nature of facts while reading a recent publication about Stonehenge: Stonehenge: A New Understanding, by Mike Parker Pearson. It’s a delightful scholarly book by someone who is intimately familiar with the archeology and really excited about his subject, and who writes well (these don’t always go together).
We’ve all heard of Stonehenge, right? I’ve been there: once back in the Dark Ages when one was permitted to wander freely amongst the stones and pat them affectionately (I’ve also visited the larger stone circle at nearby Avebury, close in time to the summer solstice, when people actually hug the stones); and once after all the regulations went into effect and now you can only walk along marked paths at a reverent distance. This has something to do with preserving the past for the future, which I endorse, but it does change the experience.
We probably all think we know something about Stonehenge. Of course Stonehenge came up when I took Astronomy in college (all those alignments with sun or moon or various stars), and I’ve read a lot of books about the theories of who made Stonehenge and how and why. The new book turns a whole lot of that on its ear. While there have been many interesting, even convincing theories put forward, the author revises, redates, reinterprets and reassembles them, with the help of recent technologies. Did I understand Stonehenge? Only as well as past research allowed. Now new research means I have to craft a new understanding.
It ain’t always easy. It would be nice if there was a way to evaluate the data stored in our brain from time to time and say, “nope, never gonna need that file again” and toss it out so there’s room for something new, like social media vocabulary. But apparently I am unable to unlearn such useful things as song lyrics from the 1960s, for example, which are taking up a ridiculous amount of space in there—and I don’t even recall “learning” those lyrics, because as a serious, studious girl I rarely listened to popular music.
Now I write books. That means I’m supposed to remember a whole slew of characters that I’ve created—what they look like, how they think and speak, who they know. I’m supposed to keep track of what their homes and their towns look like, and which way is north in these fictional places. And now I have a lot of writer friends, and I’m supposed to remember who their characters are, and their book titles, and their agent’s name, and so on. Sometimes it feels like I’m squishing this into whatever empty corner of my brain that I can find—and sometimes I lose track of that information and can’t access those databases. My apologies to any friends I have insulted recently by calling them by the wrong name or no name at all.
Is it even possible to “know” anything any more?