Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.”
The fear is that we’re turning our children into automatons by force-feeding them useless bits of information — facts that can be found instantly on Wikipedia, like the dates of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) or the equation for calculating the area of a circle (πr2).
But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?
The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is yes. And a recent discussion on the BAM! Radio Network in which I participated focused on this very topic — the value of rote memorization. The conversation, hosted by Rae Pica, featured Daniel Willingham (a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia), Joan Almon (executive director of the Alliance for Childhood) and me.
Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”
Learning things by heart can be useful for any number of reasons, some of which we discuss in the radio show. As an English teacher, I’ve often made my students memorize poetry — and just as often some have pushed back, accusing me of assigning meaningless “busy work.” I love that accusation because it provides me the perfect opportunity to explain why memorizing a poem is, in fact, a worthwhile activity.
In 10th grade, I learned by heart the prologue to the Canterbury Tales (in Middle English, of course), and to this day I can recite it and a lot of other Chaucer that I had to memorize as an undergraduate. I can also do Robert Frost, Heinrich Heine (in German) and Shakespeare (“To be or not to be”) at the drop of a hat. Also, should you wish to know, I could tell you the first 100 digits or so of π. Yeah, it’s kinda geeky — but it’s kinda cool, too.
And here’s a little-known secret: learning things by heart isn’t as hard as many people imagine. Most people, I think, could learn the first 100 digits of π in an hour. (No one believes me until they actually try.) The trick to remembering the digits long-term, however, is constant repetition — especially when you’re early in the process. I’m able not to forget Hamlet’s soliloquy because I learned it really well a decade ago — practicing multiple times a day for weeks on end — and because I now check myself every few weeks or so to see if I still know it.
For inspiration on the memorization front, check out the video below of a three-year-old reciting Billy Collins’ poem “Litany.” This serves as a lovely reminder of what the human brain is capable of. (Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.)
Anyway, here are some of the reasons I give skeptical students for why learning things by heart is worthwhile:
First, it’s a challenge, and one in which those who succeed can take pride. (On this front, I’ve always been much more impressed by Broadway actors than their Hollywood counterparts because the former can’t screw up — they have to nail everything the first time — and because they don’t get cue cards off-camera to prompt them. Hollywood actors, by contrast, can get away with memorizing just a handful of lines and often re-shoot a single scene scores of times to get it right.)
Second, it’s good exercise for your brain. Many people these days seem to believe that our digital devices will remember everything for us — and they will, but they’re not much help when we can’t find them, or they’re broken, or they’ve been left at home. How will you call your best friend to reschedule that lunch appointment — you don’t even know her phone number! And she’s your best friend?
Third, and most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)
The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.
It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.
And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.
We say “practice makes perfect” in English but this, I think, is somewhat misleading because perfection is rarely attainable. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” performance of a Beethoven sonata. And while perfection in sports isn’t inconceivable — I suppose a tennis player could win a match in straight sets without dropping a single point, or a quarterback could complete every pass (with no interceptions) in a football game — it’s highly unlikely. Thus, I prefer the German version of the saying: “practice makes the master.” Those who are the best at things typically become so through nonstop practice. It’s not the only factor, of course — natural ability matters hugely, too — but it does seem to be a necessary ingredient. As Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mother” fame, says in her new book: “Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.”
Why are rote repetition and memorization underrated in America? As I say on the radio show, they’ve gotten a bad rap in part because they lend themselves too well to standardized testing. It’s much easier — faster, cheaper — for me to determine whether you know when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) than whether you can convincingly explain how and why the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II. Yes, the curriculum has narrowed (even Arne Duncan admits it!), the “what-gets-tested-is-what-gets-taught” phenomenon is very much alive, and there’s a lack of critical-thinking skills among today’s young people.
These sad facts, however, are more the result of our over-reliance on multiple-choice tests than anything inherently evil about repetition or memorization.