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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 1988
  • Online publication date: March 2010

7 - The maintenance of marginal knowledge


The view that memory research should relate directly to real-life problems has received much support during the past decade. The new ecological emphasis is evident in the titles of recent books (Harris & Morris, 1984; Poon, in press), including this volume, and in the materials, situations, and procedures selected for study by many investigators. However, the new ecological emphasis has yielded uneven benefits because it has focused on autobiographical event memory and on short time periods. In contrast, long-term retention of semantic-memory content continues to be neglected.

The failure to investigate lifetime retention of semantic content leaves memory research largely irrelevant to education. A primary goal of education is to establish and preserve knowledge, and relevant memory research must explore retention of knowledge systems over long periods of time. Findings based on event memory or limited to short intervals are comparatively trivial. This problem has been discussed by Neisser (1982), who has sharply criticized psychologists for neglecting research concerned with the long-term retention of academic content.

Psychologists recognized long ago that the scientific study of learning ought to produce benefits to education. The relation of psychology to education can be viewed as comparable to the relation of biological science to medicine, or the relation of genetics and botany to agriculture. To be sure, societies grew crops, treated the ill, and educated their youth long before scientists began to investigate the principles involved in these essential enterprises, but the advances in biological and agricultural sciences during the last 200 years have led to dramatic improvements in the way medicine and farming are practiced.