As I’ve stated previously in Graduating Anxiety and in previous columns, the role of memory is over-stated even in the best educational programs. Rote memorization is a quaint relic of a bygone era, love it or hate it. I knew a beloved teacher that taught at Taft for many years who could quote any famous novel or poem if you named it. It was charming and genius, but I doubt it will matter much in 20 years, when our kids are hitting their strides in their respective careers. Elon Musk has already begun to develop a chip to instal in your brain as a form of surgically integrated electronic device. Memorization of any kind seems of little value if you can look up information just by thinking about it. While the technology and acceptance of the concept, which sounds more like science-fiction at this point, may be a bit removed at this point, it won’t stay that way forever. Ask someone in 1990, on the cusp of the age of the internet, about a world in which you could order a pair of shoes with one click or talk via video interface with someone live in Abu-Dhabi. Those are commonly accepted practices by virtually everyone on the planet now, several decades later. Major shifts are coming.
So why on earth do we continue to cling to old educational paradigms like rote memorization? Before I launch too far into this polemic, I need to clarify my position. I have to admit that I found myself teaching my daughter memorization tactics just yesterday, as we discussed mnemonics or the practice of creating images or sounds related to concepts to remember them. If she didn’t know how to remember any information at all, it certainly wouldn’t serve her now, despite what is coming in the next 10-20 years. Despite being only 8, she will soon be asked to recall a bunch of data that will be entirely irrelevant to her 5 minutes after regurgitating it on a quiz: what’s the capital of Australia? Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner? What’s the formula for the area of a pyramid? So we find ourselves on the ridiculous barrier of having to help our kids prepare rigorously for the skills of today that will have very little bearing on the needs of tomorrow. What a world… But I guess this is the result of technology evolving faster than the human mind’s ability to conceptualize it.
The inevitable answer to this impossible conundrum is, of course, that they need a little bit of both learning for today and preparation for tomorrow. Fortunately, this is possible. My daughter can learn mnemonics and memorize the major evolutionary ages, she can memorize all the planets in the milky way and the name of the first president to please her teacher. She can learn it all and simultaneously recall that the information itself is not important in the long-run. The lessons learned in building character, in applying that information, in working with an adult, will all apply, even if we all have chips in our brains and robotic arms and are grown in a laboratory. So despite the practice seemingly hopeless antiquated, it pays to take that medicine with a spoonful of sugar.