The dangers of emphasizing understanding in education to the point of overlooking the importance of memorization skills
Sometimes, my thoughts are a butterfly. It flits around me and, just when I’m about to look closely, it flutters away. I begin chasing it, and see it vanish right before my eyes. In a moment, I even forget what it is I was trying to chase.
A few years ago, I was with Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile at his house. He was maybe 94. I asked him what his secret was in keeping sharp. Without a moment’s pause, he said, “I memorize poems. Right now, I am memorizing the ‘Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.’”
The “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is the title English poet Edward Fitzgerald gave to a collection of quatrains he translated in 1859 from Persian. The quatrains, 75 of them in the first edition and a little over 100 by the fifth edition published in 1889, are said to have been selected from the works of the Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyám (1048-1131).
A few days later, I asked Manong Frankie, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, who was at that time just over 90, if he too memorized poems. He shook his head. When I asked him how he kept his brain in top form, he said, “Well, I read, I write.”
So I told Manong Frankie about Enrile and the rubáiyát. He didn’t say anything, but without further ado, he launched himself to an oration, reciting a famous speech. It was the Gettysburg address, if memory serves me right.
When was the last time you memorized anything? Back in the day, memorization was a big part of education, although in recent decades, it’s gotten a bad rap, thanks perhaps to the proponents of free thinking. The last few decades, if you notice, have been about freeing the body, freeing the mind, freeing the soul and anything that puts body, mind, and soul under some constraints gets a stoning.
I am a product of this time, although in my boyhood, I might have caught the tailend of the practice in which the educational system would drill thoughts into your brain, whether you liked it or not. Even then, owing to the fact that I was a juvenile delinquent, I don’t think I really had to memorize anything other than the periodic table of elements, which to this day elude my memory. Of course, there was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I don’t remember having to memorize a lot of poems as a school activity, but I memorized Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” because of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and I memorized Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” Ben Jonson’s “Song: To Celia,” and John Keats’ “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” because I loved them.
On my own, I did a lot of rote learning as a child. I wrote all the state capitals of the US on my notebook, one on each page, as well as the many European groupings—The Balkans, Benelux, the Iberian Peninsula, the United Kingdom and the countries that made them up, although, of course, geopolitics has changed all that, along with the European Union and the end of the Cold War. I was also in love with words and so, at some point, I decided to pick 20 words off my three-volume Britannica dictionary and commit each of them to memory. I followed it up with idioms, common phrases associated with certain fields like food or sports or fashion, and then foreign expressions like oo-la-la-la or la dolce vita or mea culpa. As a student, I would memorize friends’ telephone numbers as well as their car plate numbers just so I would know right away, stepping into the parking lot, who was on campus or not.
As children, we all enjoyed memorization. There was fun making sure we could tell our reds from our blues and greens. There was fun memorizing our ABCs, our 123s, our do-re-mi’s and whatever it was that we needed to see or hear or touch over and over until knowing it would be second nature to us.
In his paper “What Good Is Learning, If You Don’t Remember It?” American neuroscience professor Dr. William Klemm wrote that “teachers should emphasize the educational importance of understanding, but not to the point of overlooking the importance of memorization skills. Currently, mainstream educational theory embraces such attributes as insight, creativity, inquiry learning, and self-expression, but… students cannot apply what they understand if they don’t remember it. A good memory expands the repertoire of cognitive capabilities upon which new understandings can be developed.”
Memory is like Steve Jobs’ turtleneck, something he could rely on, so he could focus on other things.The way it works, as I understand it, is that, if given the opportunity, the brain processes knowledge into long-term memory, so as to free itself up for more knowledge.
Memorization advocates have it so much harder now that it’s easier to get away with being stupid as long as you have Google pinned on your phone screen. I used to think that kids were rude being on their phones while I was talking to them until I realized they were looking up unfamiliar words, proper or common, that I said so they could say something back to me about them. Kudos to them, but these were just the promising ones. Many were probably just catching Pokémons.
Back to Enrile: He warned me, “You guys must be scared. Without your phone memory, you won’t even know your own numbers anymore.”
I agree. Although it isn’t exactly a muscle, the brain does benefit from exercise or some form of constant challenge like mental gymnastics. In a research at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland, it was found that “practicing memorization allowed elderly adults to delay typical cognitive decline by seven to 14 years.”
I better do Homer now.