I learned a new word the other day. “Extelligence”. If intelligence is the ability to use the knowledge inside our minds, then extelligence is the ability to use the knowledge that resides outside individual human minds. I’ll give some examples of extelligence below.

Recorded information

Some knowledge is sufficiently obscure that, at times, nobody actually knows it. However, it’s safely written down, and we can look it up whenever we want. This might include obscure bylaws, company procedures or odd pieces of scientific knowledge. This is extelligence at the level of individual facts. While important,  this is not as important as what I describe below.

Organizational Knowledge

Most of the important things people know, nobody actually knows. As soon as an organization grows beyond a certain small size, no one person can know everything about how the organization works. And yet, the way it works is still part of human knowledge. There’s an entire field of knowledge, called “Knowledge Management”, that deals with how organizations can tap into their organizational knowledge.

Cultural Knowledge

On a grander scale still is cultural knowledge. This is the sum total of everything we know as a society. Specifically, it is things that we (as a society) know, but that no one individual knows. Most of the useful things we know fall into this category. Even simple things such as how to make a cup of tea.

Steam Swirling from a Cup Of Tea
Nobody actually knows how to make a cup of tea

You might think that you know how to make tea, but you don’t. Nobody does. It seems, on the face of it, simple enough – get a tea bag, add boiling water, and serve it up. However, it’s not so simple as that. To get tea bags, they must first be purchased from a store. The store must purchase them from a supplier, who buys them from an importer. Do you know how to do all that? If you do, do you know how to grow a tea plant, collect the leaves and dry them? Back them in a little bag made of… something? Make ink and cardboard to print the tag? Smelt iron for the staple attaching the tag to the cotton string? And for the boiling water – in the movie “Enchanted” the princess asks her (soon to be discovered) true love where the water in the shower comes from. “It’s not magic, it’s from the pipes.” and how does it get in the pipes? “I don’t know”. Most people don’t know even a small part of the ins and outs of supplying fresh water to our homes. Nor the power supply to boil the water. Nor how to make a kettle or a teacup. And it gets worse still if we like milk or sugar – or aspartame – in our cuppa.

I would guess that there is no one individual who actually knows enough to make a cup of tea from scratch. And yet, billions of cups of tea are made every week. That’s because the individual bits of knowledge that came together to make your cup of tea were readily available, though spread out over thousands of minds all over the world.

The Role Of Education

If you ask people what the purpose of education is, you’ll get a number of different answers. It’s to “prepare kids for the future”, or to “help kids get good jobs.” Maybe it’s to “teach kids life skills.” Some will even tell you it’s a form of babysitting!

There’s another purpose for education, one that dates right back to the monasteries that formed during the dark ages. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe, a great deal of knowledge was lost. Much of the knowledge that was preserved was saved by the monastic movement – small religious communities that set themselves up in isolated areas, became self-sufficient, and dedicated themselves to their faith and to the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge.

Education is, at its core, the passing on of knowledge. If a great scientist dies, their knowledge dies with them – unless they have taught others (or at least recorded) what they know. The mathematician Évariste Galois (one of the greatest mathematicians of the 19th century) seemed to know this. He was killed in a duel at the age of 20, but the night before the duel, he stayed up all night writing letters to friends – and writing down profound mathematical truths that (until that night) had existed only in his mind.

Therefore, one critical role of education is to ensure the preservation of our extelligence. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series describes a distant future where mankind has travelled to the stars – but since they feel that preserving knowledge is no longer important, the galactic empire is slowly slipping into decay.

There should be nothing surprising about this. If we (humanity as a whole), neglect education, or forget that education must pass on knowledge and teach kids how to move in a world of extelligence, then within a generation we will have gone backwards. We will have forgotten the things that make our lives healthier, safer and more comfortable. We’ll look back on the memory of a golden age now gone.  If we as a nation forget education, then within a generation we will fall behind economically, as other nations that do not forget capture the lions share of innovation.

While education for an individual means preparing him or her for the future (and giving the parents a break!), for society education means determining whether the future will be one we’d like our kids to live in.