Memorization is Overrated


A hallmark of education in this country, in our time, seems to be this: memorization is overrated.

Many of you probably agree. We’ve all partaken in the groaning and moaning about history classes that are reduced to “a bunch of names and dates.” “Why does it matter if I know what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” (1492 is the knee-jerk response, of course, but also in 1493 and 1498 for those of you at home keeping score.) “Who cares if I know the periodic table? I can just look it up.”

Yes. Yes you can. But here’s the problem with that.

It lets you be stupid.

“Dang it, Wes! You’ve insulted me for the last time. I’m going to stop reading your blog and spend more time on r/cats.”

Wait a minute and hear me out.

For centuries and centuries- possibly from the beginning of time- man has relied on memorization as the primary means of learning. Why is that? We are often quick to assume that those who have gone before us were brainless nitwits and Neanderthals, so it isn’t hard to disregard their opinion. (of course, those who actually read things written more than ten years ago will see how silly the idea of past inferiority is) Yet they must have had a reason. It is said that Saladin, the great hero of the Second Crusades (Well, hero if you’re a Muslim, I suppose, but he was even respected by his enemies in Christendom at the time) had ten books of poetry committed to memory. TEN. I know people who don’t have their own phone number committed to memory.

We give lip service to critical thinking- an excellent concept, to be sure, and quite valuable. And yet what good is analysis by a fool? By someone who knows nothing. I have zero knowledge about diesel mechanics. If a diesel mechanic called me up and said, “Wes, come look at this aircraft carrier I have in the bay. I want your analysis.” Well, I suppose I could wander down to the water and give it a look. Then, using my powers of critical thinking, I could tell him…

Well, probably nothing of use.

Why was Sherlock Holmes so successful, albeit in his fictional world, at solving crimes? His powers of observation and deduction, of course. Yes, good. Why was this of use to him? Other people were capable of noticing the six flecks of mud that were on the riding boot of the man at the door, but that did no one any good except for Sherlock Holmes. Why? Because, like the freak of nature that he is, he had memorized the color of every mud in England, so he was able to deduce where the man had just come from. Without his great wealth of facts, Sherlock Holmes is reduced to being a moderately clever average joe with a cocaine problem and a penchant for the violin.

The most intelligent people I know also seem to have the most committed to memory. I do not think this is a coincidence. Training our memory trains our mind. Proper reflection and critical analysis can only take place after there are facts to work with. Insight comes from saturation, not from a void. It is said that the Druids of ancient Celtic lore were able to reproduce anything they had read one time. Think about that. Once they had completed the training of years and years, they were supposed to have been able to read a book one time, then pick up a pen and reproduce it for you.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty handy skill to me. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t need to reproduce books that often,” then you’re not thinking broadly enough. Remembering precisely what happened, knowing the facts and figures relevant to my work, preserving new words when trying to learn a language- all of these things make for a life of higher achievement and learning.

Furthermore, I can say based on my own experience and more importantly on the testimony of others that there is a deeper sort of understanding that often comes with memorization. I often don’t fully grasp a piece of poetry until I’ve committed it to memory. Once done, its meaning opens up like a blossoming flower. Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, but it is true nonetheless.

Why is it that people go through four years of a language during high school and don’t speak a word of a second language? Why is it that so few people remember how to do the calculus they learned in college? Why is it that so many people read a book or listen to a speech and instantly forget what it was about? Why do we so often repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Memory is a precious and an underappreciated thing, friends. Thankfully, it is a muscle that can be improved with practice.

Now let’s go memorize something, yeah?


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