Since I’ve written before about the evils of memorization, it’s now time to put in a good word on its behalf. Specifically, I’d like to share the rhyming catch-phrase I just invented:
A little baby-voiced, I realize. But hear me out.
First off: Knowledge matters. I mean names, dates, facts, formulas—they’re essential. They’re valuable. They’re part of what it means to be educated. Anyone who denigrates factual recall, or who touts Wikipedia as a fitting replacement for the human brain, is missing something big about the nature of expertise.
“Critical thinking” isn’t the opposite of “factual knowledge.” Critical thinking relies on factual knowledge. Critical thinking is the intelligent manipulation of facts—knowing what to emphasize and what to discard, how to synthesize and draw connections, when to seek out new data and what data, exactly, to seek.
If critical thinking is the ability to build towers, then facts are the bricks. You kinda need ‘em, and memorization can help.
The problem isn’t memorization, per se.
The problem is when memorization spreads like a weed, and begins to substitute for reason. The problem is “ASTC,” “FOIL,” and other mnemonic shortcuts that circumvent actual mathematical reasoning. The problem is when all of algebra or calculus is reduced to chugging through formulas whose origins and purpose you don’t understand. That’s when math stops being math, and becomes Following Recipes 101, a far less meaningful and worthwhile class.
What’s the solution? Memorize at the beginning of the year… and never, ever again. Memorization (whether by rote or by mnemonic device) serves us best when it gives us a starting place. It’s much easier to build well-integrated, highly connected knowledge structures when you’ve got a few basic facts to build off of.
If you’re taking a chemistry class, memorize the first few rows of the periodic table.
If you’re taking a course on American history, then memorize the major wars and the years that they occurred.
If you’re taking a course on trigonometry, memorize SOHCAHTOA.
Memorize this stuff on Day #1. It’ll give you a skeleton, and you’ll spend the rest of your time adding flesh and muscle to this bone-bare framework. But don’t keep memorizing more than you need to. For example, don’t memorize that sin(π/2) = 1. Reason out why sin(π/2) = 1, based on more elementary facts, and then remember it because it’s part of an interconnected structure of knowledge.
Memorization isn’t the essence of learning. But it’s a useful tool for getting us started.