Thomas W. Thornberry, M.A., MPA

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DISCLAIMER: As with most blogs, the material here is my opinion, and should be taken as such. While I hope it will stimulate your thinking, it should not be confused with the intensive experience of professional psychological treatment. If you have an personal issue of some considerable distress, my suggestion is for you to seek the services of a counselor in your area. That being said, even in matters of opinion, I like to think mine are informed by both academic research and my professional clinical experience. UPDATE: Mental Morsels continues with new posts at:

September 2009

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Mental Benefits of Rote Memorization

Rote memorization has become the pinata for the entire field of education. Always a highly politicized area of our civilization, educational values, pedagogy and the role of modern teachers have all borne the blame for countless societal ills. Teachers today too often receive a figurative scarlet letter "F" from the public for failure to teach basic language skills, and for their seeming inability to convey appreciation for our cultural heritage. And for emphasizing "rote memorization" over "real learning." Today, we give "real learning," the moniker, "critical thinking."

In his book
Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation Of Language And Music And Why We Should, Like, Care (2003), linguist John McWhorter makes the argument that the changes in the educational system are a symptom of a larger cultural movement toward increasing informality in learning and communication. A symptom, not the cause. You can pursue Dr. McWhorter's ideas further at the link above. Here, I'd like to extend this portion of his thesis into the realm of mental health.

The fact of the matter is that the trend in the West over the past 45 years or so has been to emphasize self-expression over self-discipline. Rather than push people to learn detailed rules and traditional strictures for writing, talking, even painting, the goal has been to rid the mind of such arbitrary, stuffy, tedious, and (let's face it), plain hard rules of craft. Instead of considering such rules means for expressing erudition and discipline, we see them as bygone ways of conveying snobbery and classism. Worse, so the prevailing paradigm asserts, the rules snuff out creativity by binding up energy in their mastery, and leave little left over for true meaningful expression. It's like a mind subjected to rules must necessarily be dimmed by them; only a mind that can vent itself in every direction at once, without limit, can be authentic.

I suspect this paradigm represents too much of a good thing. To use a metaphor, it would be like saying a bare light bulb is more "real" and beautiful in its unshaded authenticity, then light filtered through a crafted chandelier or stained glass window. Which would strike you as more beautiful?

Worse, as a counselor, I fear that doing away with rote rules and making everyone focus on "self-expression" might have set many people up for failure.

Yes, there are the divergent thinkers out there, those inherently creative and rebellious types who withered under hidebound, authoritarian learning methods like rote memorization. These types likely did revel in the newfound cultural freedom to express themselves in their own, idiosyncratic ways. They could cut ties with the past and their "establishment" elders.

But what about other hardworking people? Those folks who, when you take away the rules and tell them to express, find themselves with nothing to say? Or no good way to say what they do harbor in their hearts? What if they find "critical thinking" exercises frustrating, intimidating or frankly, beyond their ability? Or worse case scenario, they express themselves proudly, believing they are profound, only to find the world beyond the classroom--friends, bosses, coworkers--responding with a resounding yawn? I can't imagine the devastation this kind of person experiences is worth throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I think rote memorization might have left them a more viable legacy.

My grandfather was poorly educated. He technically attended school through the eighth grade. But because the one-room rural schoolhouses in the Appalachia of the 1920s lacked enough teachers for every grade, he was only able to cobble together about five or six years worth of true schooling. Despite that, he had a 39-year work history that ended in management, he supported a wife and family of six children, read the bible...well, religiously, and became an accomplished folk woodcarver.

Still, he recalled his schooling with some fondness. He remembered having to memorize parts of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. By the time I knew him, his school years were over fifty years in his past. His recollection of the poem was fragmentary and inaccurate. But he really did love it. His one regret from his education was not that he didn't get to do enough critical thinking or self-expression. No, he always wished he could have gotten more training in spelling. That rote memorization exercise so many of us hated in school was what he desired the most.

My Baby Boomer father could still recite Shakespear's "
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," soliloquy from MacBeth and "The Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll, some thirty years after he graduated high school. These are the legacies of his education, poetry that even today I would wager he is proud to recite.

Rote memorization ended up having far-reaching consequences for both my grandfather and my father. There is a pride in holding something in your skull that is *yours,* that no one can take away from you. What seems arduous and merciless to master in youth pays dividends years later. It is even better, of course, when the effort is freely chosen. I spent the summer of 1990 memorizing "
The Raven" for myself...all 102 lines of it. If asked, I could recite it in about eight minutes, at about 90% accuracy. By contrast, from my teenage years, I can recall few "critical thinking" exercises in which I did well. I felt much better about myself when I added a bit of Poe to my own being.

We can't turn back the clock and return education to its hidebound traditions. That would be as unrealistic as asking men in their thirties to put on monocles and bowler hats, and pushing women in their twenties not to shave their legs. Instead, I wonder if modern educational pedagogy is adaptive and willing enough to incorporate the best of what worked in the past with that freedom of expression they sell today? Is there a place for hidebound rules of learning and expression? Should we, perhaps let people choose their light bulbs, but still cover them with cut crystal chandeliers and stained glass?

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