Education reform should start in the classroom, with the relationship between teacher and pupil. In this vein, high school math teacher Ben Orlin’s recent Atlantic piece “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning,” critiques what he sees as a systematic bias in American education towards fact-based memorization. Orlin contends that an overemphasizing the memorizing of factoids detracts from the student’s ability to bind what she has learned into a “web of logic.” He writes:
Some things are worth memorizing–addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays. The sine of π/2 is not among them. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding…
As Vincent Ryan Ruggiero writes in his new book Corrupted Culture, rote memorization was woven into the philosophical fabric of our educational system when it was developed in the first half of the twentieth century:
Textbooks were designed to be repositories of information rather than offering challenges to excite and encourage understanding. Academic excellence was measured in terms of the quantity of information possessed rather than the depth of understanding or the proficiency in applying knowledge to new situations. “Objective” tests (true or false, multiple choice, fill in the blank) replaced essay tests.
Earlier this year, however, Brad Leithauser wrote a piece for the New Yorker that would seem to contradict Orlin’s pushback against the long-standing rote memorization regime, titled “Why We Should Memorize.” Leithauser writes:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Superficially, one could say that the two men are diametrically opposed in their opinions: one thinks memorization bypasses conceptual learning, and one thinks memorization is essential to knowledge. However, if we consider what both men mean by memorization, they have a far greater cohesion of thought.
Orlin explains that “what separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning.” For Leithauser, “to take a poem to heart was to know it by heart.” That is certainly not a sense of memorization devoid of meaning. Rather, Leithauser has taken the poem into himself in such a way that it has become connatural to himself. This is leagues apart from Orlin’s description of memorizing only necessary facts to obtain a high grade in a class. In fact, when speaking of poetry, Orlin describes his own experience with writing a paper on Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific”:
I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase. Months later, standing on a rocky, storm-swept beach, I found that I could recite the poem by heart. I never set out to memorize it. I just…did.
Both Orlin and Leithauser, in their seeming opposition, strike at the need for teachers to encourage students not to be satisfied with becoming mere repositories of factoids, but rather to allow their lessons to infuse them. Such is the nature of learning.