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Seek and Ye Shall Find

Memorization of facts is out; Know how to find it; Mastery is not going away


Today’s Financial Tip diverges from purely financial topics to talk about knowledge. The idea is to spark conversation between readers. As always, I welcome comments to my email address,

Memorization of facts is out

Preparing taxes is more than just a mundane task filled with numbers and obscure laws. Tax preparation is actually a window on how government, households, and businesses interact to encourage or discourage certain behaviors, while also raising revenue to finance our government. During the past few years, I have noticed that politicians have been much more willing to make changes to the tax code. For example:

  • on your 2009 taxes, you could actually increase your standard deduction by the amount of your real estate taxes;
  • also, you could exclude the first $2,400 in unemployment income on your 2009 taxes.
  • the Making Work Pay credit involved lowering everyone’s income tax withholding for 2009 and 2010, while also giving them a credit of $400 ($800 married filed joint).

With all these changes in the tax law, I have told students who volunteer to prepare taxes not to memorize the law, the complicated rules or specific amounts (annual exemptions). Not only does the law change, important amounts (standard deductions, exemptions, income limits, etc.) are often indexed to inflation and can change annually. By the time they have the rules memorized, someone will tweak them slightly. Congress is even tweaking them after the rules are published.

So if memorization of facts is out, how do we prepare tax returns or undertake most tasks requiring knowledge?

Know how to find it

Instead of memorizing facts, it is becoming increasingly more important to know how to find information. Through our computers – and our phones – we have access to a growing cache of information. However, this treasure trove is also full of junk. So we can’t rid ourselves of the information. We need to know how to rifle through the information to find the treasure we want today.

Here are some simple ways to find information:

These are only a sampling of the ways to find information on the Internet.

Mastery is not going away

With all this available knowledge on the web, will we ditch experts and do everything ourselves? The answer really depends on the subject matter. Although the information is available, there can be a large gap between theory and practice. For example, I recently successfully retiled a section of my bathroom by watching several videos on YouTube. There are also plenty of videos on open heart surgery, but I do not believe that I could successfully perform open heart surgery – nor would any patient want me to – after watching a few videos. Similarly, it would be difficult to prepare a tax return the first time based on Internet searching. Although the web provides plenty of information, the information may not be enough; in order to complete a task effectively, it may require time spent practicing -or it may be best to leave the task to an expert.


This post is not meant to start another form of the “calculator debate.” Instead, I hope to start a conversation about information on the web – how we access it and how we use it. With the coming ubiquity of smartphones that offer an always-on connection to the Internet, what is important enough to memorize? Is it important to memorize the capitals of all 50 states? Or the first 36 elements in the periodic table? Or is it more important to know how to find both pieces of information on the web? How will this change testing standards? Will evaluations become harder or easier?