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The One About Memorization

Once upon a time, schools were awful because teachers did not understand how children think. They did many horrible things to the children, but one of the worst was forcing them to memorize constantly. The teachers thought that all the children needed to do was memorize important facts, and they would be ready for life in the real world. But one day a nice teacher realized that all the other teachers were wrong. His name was John Dewey, and he thought it was important for children to understand facts, not only memorize them. He wanted children to learn in real-world settings and to become more creative. Soon other nice teachers decided John was right. They realized that forcing children to memorize information did not help them learn to think or create. Eventually they showed all the younger teachers how much better it was to teach children in interesting ways that appeal to them. The evil memorization teachers died out, and everyone was safe. The end.

If you have ever taken an education course, that story might sound very familiar. Even if you didn’t study education, you might have heard a version of this story in the news. Whatever the problems with American schools, at least memorization isn’t one of them.

We all know the case against memorization. If you have taken any education classes, you might be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which classes thinking skills in six levels of ascending difficulty. Memorization is at the bottom. Non-education majors might have heard horror stories about memorization. And then there is the frequent complaint, “Why should kids memorize when they can Google everything on their phones?”

Despite all the naysayers, there are good reasons to memorize, but I would first like to make it clear that memorization can be implemented badly. My mother attended a pathetic Christian school where most of the teachers couldn’t teach very well. Classes there emphasized memorization because the teachers did not really understand what they were teaching. That’s not what I’m defending. Nor will I defend the high school Bible teacher who required his class to memorize an outline of Romans and regurgitate it throughout the school year. That was pointless and ridiculous. Kids need to understand what they are learning, and they should not be memorizing anyone’s personal outline. When memorization has been used in this way, it is not wonder that many people want to avoid it!

But there are some very good reasons to memorize. Memorization is, indeed, the lowest-level of the thinking skills. In other words, it is the foundation for all the others. You cannot think if you have nothing to think about. You cannot Google if you don’t know what to type in the search box. Creativity is the result of an ability to develop new things from a synthesis of old ones. If you don’t have much in your head at the beginning, there is a limit to what you can do with it. Creativity depends a great deal on subconscious processes. If you have to Google something, it hasn’t made it into your subconscious yet. Instead, you will subconsciously depend on the things that you have memorized without intending to. Some might be very good (ever memorized a Bible passage by accident?) or very bad (shopping mall music—or worse, jingles from TV commercials).

Speaking of Bible memory, I once knew a pastor (a pastor!) who said that he didn’t care whether his kids memorized many Bible verses; he only cared that they knew how to tell someone else about Jesus. That sounds very spiritual on the surface. Down beneath, however, it is incredibly stupid. As I said, when you memorize something, truly memorize it, it begins to function within your subconscious. You no longer have to decide to think about it. It’s there. You can be half-asleep, and it will somehow come into your mind. And that is incredibly important.

Remember Jesus, defeating Satan with memorized Scripture? Everyone agrees that the Bible is important in spiritual warfare. And most people also agree that we are very likely to be tempted when we are most vulnerable—when we are very tired, or sick, or sleepy. (Jesus was starving—literally.) Are you going to remember to Google Bible verses on your phone when you are being tempted, and also have a horrific migraine? Probably not. If it wasn’t memorized beforehand, you probably won’t think about it. (And, if you really do have a migraine, you probably won’t feel physically able to search for verses anyway.)

So, if memorization is actually important, how can we make sure we don’t end up like that Bible teacher, forcing kids to scrawl our outlines word-for-word? First, remember that whatever gets memorized should be important. You should only try to memorize things that are intrinsically valuable. There is no intrinsic value to an outline. But Scripture is valuable. Math facts are vitally important. And you really should know that New York is not the capital of New York. Memorizing important pieces of literature or rhetoric is also good—not only are they valuable in themselves, they help the rhythms of language worm into a child’s subconscious. By “important” I mean the Preamble to the Constitution or Shakespeare’s sonnets. (And more playful writings that can be enjoyed by multiple age groups and education levels—“Jabberwocky,” or Edward Lear’s comic poetry, for instance—can add some fun while still helping children process language at a deeper level.)

Will the kids know what’s happening in their subconscious? Probably not—that’s why it’s called the subconscious. But when they are older, they should reap the benefits, making them conscious of what memorization has done for them.

So, memorize. Even if you are an adult and can’t seem to get that psalm right, you are still internalizing its word patterns, as well as the attitude toward life that it teaches. Memorization is not a low-level thinking skill that we can throw out with the help of Google. It is the foundation of all other thinking.

Don’t limit yourself. Don’t limit your children.

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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in General

 

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How (Not to) Kill Your Imagination

I can be rather vindictive in my entertainment. Like the time I read one of Richard Weaver’s anti-Dewey screeds during off-time in my educational practicum. Sitting in that huge public school, with all the echoing tiles around me, I found it rather delicious to enjoy Weaver’s taking the entire system apart. His comments, at this point, apply to private schools as well as public, universities as well as grade schools. Three years of constructivism had worn me down, and I had begun to decide that I had no interest in teaching high school, unless I found my way to a classical high school somehow. Weaver had a lot of thoughtful criticisms, and to me–bored and tired of being force-fed popular educational theory–they were a relief. I wasn’t crazy.

But Weaver’s criticisms were written a long time ago. Things have gotten worse since then. Not simply test scores, either. The atmosphere in schools has changed. They are now Big.

Anthony Esolen’s recent book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, is a delightful attack on how modern children are being raised. Satirically, he pretends that he actually wants to destroy the imagination of children. Of course, we can easily tell that he doesn’t. But the slight satire allows him to turn what might have been another dull book about how The Sky Is Falling into a delightful romp through basically everything.

Esolen hits on some of the points we expect from conservative cultural critics. There are places I disagree with him, or think that he doesn’t offer enough explanation. For instance, he warns against denigration of heroes, including the American military–a rather damning indictment of the modern anti-war movement. The indictment is deverved, I believe, but it doesn’t address the conservative anti-war movement, which can be quite enthusiastic about heroes and unenthusiastic about foreign wars. Because of the book’s focus, he also doesn’t offer solutions to some of the problems he unveils. So librarians are turning into philistines. But why? How can we fix the problem? And kids are stuck on the Internet. But the Internet isn’t going away. How can we use it without–as Esolen puts it–destroying children’s imaginations?

But these problems are fairly minor compared with the overall value of the book. Esolen isn’t so much trying so offer a set of solutions as he is trying to set a fire. And in that, he succeeds. His book encourages parents and educators to let children explore, to protect their sense of wonder, to let them dream, to leave them alone, to give them the gift of silence. After reading, I want to go and do some of those things myself. And I’ve been looking at the night sky with a little more pleasure and a lot more understanding. (His praise of some folk music also motivated me to get my guitar out again. I got a little excited playing “The Easter Rebellion” and ended up sporting a huge blister on my thumb.)

Yes, Esolen’s book definitely could set a person ablaze. And it proves what C.S. Lewis said–that people who often stare into the night sky or frequently meditate on the distant past are less likely than others to be “ardent or orthodox partisans.” Mainstream conservatives have praised Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, but without Esolen’s knowledge of the humanities, I wonder how much they understand it. Esolen, meanwhile, sees deeper than than most of them. Some of my favorites among his observations:

  • Structure is the key to imagination. Modern educators argue that students shouldn’t be so focused on learning facts that they lose the ability to be creative. What they don’t talk much about is that you can’t be very creative without any facts in your head.
  • Memorization can lead to creativity. Yes, we can Google things now. But you can’t Google something if you don’t know what it is. And what you memorize shapes your imagination, allowing you to synthesize unrelated things. Google can’t do that, either.
  • Bigness kills the imagination. Large schools are among the culprits. You become narrower, not broader, in your understanding of humanity when the only students you get to know well are your close friends. Being around a lot of students doesn’t amount to socialization.

I could go on. Esolen’s book is worth it. But supper is waiting. And food, of the non-packaged variety, is another way to stimulate your imagination. Who knew?

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Nonfiction

 

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When Book Trails Lead to Chesterton

Book trails can be interesting. Toward the end of the summer, I semi-innocently read the His Dark Materials series—to see what all the fuss had been about. Well, I found out what the fuss had been about. The series drove me nuts. But it also made me curious about Philip Pullman’s background. So I did a little research.

Gilbert_ChestertonWhich led me to more Pullman. Which led me to William Blake. Which led me to G.K. Chesterton. Whom Pullman doesn’t like.

I had read some of Blake’s poetry before, mostly some of his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. His Marriage of Heaven and Hell was a pretty different experience. That is where Blake makes the claim that John Milton turned the Devil into the hero of Paradise Lost. I’m still not sure how seriously to take that claim, since Blake wrote his work as a satire of the Swedenborgians—one of those slightly odd nineteenth-century sects that have been mostly forgotten, and for good reason.

So, at a friend’s suggestion, I turned to Chesterton for enlightenment. Chesterton’s biography of Blake doesn’t put any intense focus on Blake’s literary works, but it does offer a critique of his personality and thought. As a poet himself, Chesterton greatly admired Blake while strongly opposing some of his beliefs.

Chesterton’s biographies are not biographies in the traditional sense. (Chesterton—traditionalist though he was—did very little in the “traditional sense.”) The biography is less about the events Blake’s life than it is about an effort to understand him. But understanding him was what I wanted to do anyway.

Chesterton left me with a lot of thoughts about William Blake. But—in typical Chestertonian fashion—he left me with more thoughts about life. About education, even.

“People say that specialists are inhuman,” wrote Chesterton, “but that is unjust…. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man.” Supporters of a liberal arts education, please stand up.

You know the stereotypes…the university professor who knows everything to know about his subject but doesn’t care two bits for his students. The medical student whose rudeness grows in proportion to his knowledge. The increasingly ruthless businessman. Chesterton says that the stereotypes are all bunk. The real problem isn’t intelligent people who turn into machines. The problem is intelligent people whose learning makes them so narrow that they can’t function outside of their specialty.

A professor of mine sometimes told a story about a stellar English student in Britain. She went to Oxford, if I recall correctly, and a group of visiting American students invited her to a meal because they had heard about her and thought she would be interesting to talk to.

She wasn’t. And not because she was rude or socially awkward. She simply didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. The Americans might not have her raw intelligence, but they had enough general knowledge to talk about a wide range of subjects. She could talk intelligently about English and very little else. So she sat through the evening in near-silence, the product of an overly specialized education.

“Wherever [the specialist] is not exceptionally learned,” Chesterton argues, “he is quite casually ignorant.” Chesterton mainly applied his contention to scientists, but, as my professor’s story shows, the problem is not confined to scientists. And I’m fairly sure it isn’t only confined to Europe. American support for the liberal arts is waning. We would do well to listen to Chesterton’s warnings:

In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the castle moat….People talk about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins mankind is the ignorance of the expert.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Nonfiction, poetry

 

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