Memorization: It Isn't for Fools


I saw a commercial the other day in which a young man who appears to be traveling in Europe speaks some English into his cell phone, presses a button, and the phone translates to the frowning older man he’s talking to that the boy’s “grandfather is from this town.” The old man smiles and takes him in, and for a brief moment the world is a bit smaller. Sort of. This story is the often championed example cited by people who rail against the “waste of time” that is memorization—after all, why learn French when you can just speak some words into your cell phone and out they pop, perfectly translated without any effort from you?Sure, if you want to find a croissant, a bathroom, or your grandfather’s grave, you can probably get by with your cell phone.

What we Learn and Why We Learn It

Whether or not you follow educational debate, you’ll find that the debate is, in all its forms, really about what we should learn and why we should learn it. Furthermore, we’re not really arguing about what the kids should be doing—we’re having a great debate about how each of us should spend our time, what we value, and what we’re trying to collectively accomplish. What we learn and why we learn it is so deceptively simple, but the debate is complex. I’d argue that the single greatest factor fueling the debate is the ubiquity of the web and the instantaneous access to information it provides. “Why learn that Physics formula when you can just look it up?!”“Why learn French if you can just speak into your phone?” “Who wants to memorize Whitman, anyway?” But is instantaneous access to information the same as instantaneous access to understanding?

Don't Internalize? Get Dumb.

Nicholas Carr’s exploration of the effects of Google address that very problem, citing research that extends beyond his own:

What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence. (The Shallows, 143)

Wait? Relying on the internet as your outboard brain can interfere with development of useful intelligence? Yes. Here’s why:

Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention – and it’s Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. (The Shallows, 155)

Without slow, savoring, concentrated thought (you’ll often hear this referred to as “flow”), you impede your ability to make connections that make you a more effective thinker. Read: if you’re not thinking on your own and synthesizing info in your brain—rather than on the screen—you’re not going to maintain or develop intelligence. Not only that, your ability to communicate (and compete!) with people who do ensure that they engage in “slow, concentrated thought” is going to be diminished. This ain’t good, and its implications extend from the classroom to the global arena. We have to decide if we’re okay with modern cultural discourse being reduced to finding a place to pee and a snack via an iPhone, because if we’re really going to resort to “just look it up” educational theory, that’s where we’re headed. If you’re someone actively involved in international conversation, be that conversation political, social, or economic, your inclination should be obvious. But, you don’t have to be on the front lines of reframing the global community for memorization to be important to you. It’s important that we protect ourselves intellectually by making the effort to learn and retain information for the sake of retaining it, in the sheer hope that we’ll be able to use it again. In this regard, curiosity is the greatest attribute of the creative problem-solver. We have to come to terms with the truth, that memorization, retention, just learning stuff is invaluable to our ability to solve problems and think creatively. We can’t ditch internalization of information for a focus on strategy and problem-solving—because we cannot have one without the other.

Discourse: It's More Complex Than Speak 'n' Spell

Back to our boy seeking his grandfather’s homeland. It’s dangerous to believe that technology is a wholly reliable intermediary for communication, activism, and peace. Often, the most important, dynamic, nuanced conversations happen on-the-spot, face-to-face. You’re never going to have a salon level conversation while pausing to translate it through a cell phone. On the other hand, you’re never going to be fully equipped to communicate with everyone on every topic in every language on the fly, solve every problem without looking up a formula, or recite every piece of poetry without error. But so what? Does that mean we shouldn’t bother at all? Not if we know we’re weaker problem-solvers with information only “at our fingertips” rather than within our intellects. We’ll never be independently, fully equipped for anything. Never. Couldn’t be. Furthermore, we’ll never be able to out-know technology. But for now, we’re certain to be able to out-understand technology, and if we start limiting those things we bother to learn “because we can just look them up” we end up without any understanding at all. Maybe it’s time to go learn some

Elizabeth KingComment