»  National Review

June 25th, 2001

  Thanks for the Memory


In what has now become a hardy perennial of U.S. minor-news reporting, the $10,000 grand prize at this year's National Spelling Bee was won yet again by a home-schooled competitor, 13-year-old Sean Conley from Shakopee, Minnesota. Young Sean tells us that in preparation for the contest he learned, presumably by memorizing them, 20,000 words — a return on investment of a very creditable 50 cents per word.

Why do home-schooled children do so well at this kind of competition? One factor is surely the willingness of parents to permit the use of rote memorization as a learning technique. In schools of education, where most professional teachers are trained, memorization is seriously frowned on. The dominant philosophy in these places is "constructivism" — the belief that, as propagandists of the movement say: "Children actively construct their own knowledge." Constructivists believe that through guided experimentation and supervised play, children can discover for themselves true facts about the world, and that this "child-centered" approach is pedagogically (and, one cannot help deducing from their writings, also morally) superior to the more traditional "instructor-centered" methods. The slogan of the constructivists is: "I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand." These ideas are generally credited to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, whose work in the second quarter of the 20th century established the basic principles. However, constructivism has obvious roots in the educational philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his disciple Heinrich Pestalozzi, and it was Rousseau who delivered the first blast against rote memorization 200 years ago in Book Two of Emile.

The constructivist approach is not without merit. Many skills, particularly those requiring mind-body co-ordination, can only be acquired by hands-on practice. One of the most compelling accounts of the learning process is the one give by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, where he tells how he learned to navigate a river steamboat, mainly by just doing it — under expert guidance, of course. It is only that "I do; I understand" is not the whole story. Certainly it is true that you will not master a foreign language unless, at some point, you actually try to speak or write it. It is also true, however, that you will not master a language well unless you have committed to memory long lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules.

With more purely intellectual studies, rote memorization is, it seems to me, even more indispensable. It is difficult to see how history, for example, can be learned by "doing" it. To gain some understanding of any historical process, you need to know the order in which things happened. The simplest way to do this is to memorize key dates. Nor can much that is important about literature or mathematics be imparted by letting students doodle "creatively" with words and numbers.

I speak from prejudice here, as my own education at pre-constructivist English schools was premised on the idea that true understanding can only be built on a foundation of memorized material. At my elementary school we mustered in the playground in good weather, then were marched off into our classrooms chanting the multiplication tables. Poetry was taught almost entirely by memorization. (Is there any other way?) We had to commit great slabs of verse to memory, from T.S. Eliot's "Macavity," which my whole fourth-grade class recited at a school Christmas show, to Chaucer's "Prologue" in the actual Middle English (with much sniggering about "Zephirus — eek! — with his sweaty breath"). I remain convinced that you don't know much about a poem until you have memorized it. I admit that in the case of "Paradise Lost" or "The Vanity of Human Wishes," this can be a tall order; but anyone can memorize a short poem in half an hour, and if you don't have a dozen or so by heart — pieces of the length of "Concord Hymn" or "Dover Beach" — your teachers swindled you. This is what poems are for.

The dull task of memorization was sweetened by a vast mini-culture of jingles and catchphrases, all designed to help children retain facts. Some of these tricks, I am sure, were centuries old. There were memory-friendly couplets like: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," and the classical equivalent: "In A.D. nine, Varus crossed the Rhine." And the mnemonics! I was a bit surprised recently to find that American children are taught no real mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow. "Roy. G. Biv" just doesn't cut it, as far as I'm concerned. We got at least two: "Richard of York gave battle in vain," and "Real old yokels gorge beef in volumes," the first of which has the extra advantage of including a historical and literary factoid. In "Such, Such Were the Joys," his essay about his own prep school, George Orwell claimed he was taught to remember the initial letters of all the battles in the Wars of the Roses from the initials of: "A black Negress was my aunt: there's her house behind the barn." I never encountered that one myself, but for the Kings and Queens of England we had an entire song:

Willy the Conqueror long did reign,
Then Willy his son by an arrow was slain;
And Harry the First was a scholar bright,
But Stephen was forced for his crown to fight …

(This is the one I learned, anyway. There is a variant version in Hazel Felleman's Best-Loved Poems of the American People, along with another one for the U.S. Presidents.) Mnemonics seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid. I was taught the Ten Commandments — in the Protestant numbering — via the mnemonic: "One idle damn Sunday, Dad killed cheating thief and lied to cover it." This one has a quality found in all the best mnemonics: it makes very little sense. It is a fact known to people who study these things that bizarre or illogical mnemonics are the easiest to recall. At the furthest extreme of this principle are mnemonics that are perfectly meaningless, like the lengthy one used for centuries by students of classical logic to remember the nineteen valid forms of the syllogism: "Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferioque … ," and so on for four more lines of pseudo-Latin gibberish. Alternatively, it helps if the mnemonic delivers a striking visual image: medical students, at any rate in England, remember the five branches of the facial nerve (temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, cervical) by dint of the, well, unforgettable mnemonic: "Two Zulus buggered my cat."

The sentimental follies of purist constructivism, whose excesses have done so much to weaken learning in America, share with the political Left the conviction that traditional approaches to child-raising are joyless and "mean-spirited," forced on children by flint-faced capitalists who regard the imaginative and spiritual sides of human nature as unprofitable. (I suppose Thomas Gradgrind, the "eminently practical" businessman/father in Dickens's Hard Times, is the archetype here.) That is not how I remember it. A traditional, fact-based education need not be served up cold. The spirit of play, that is present to some degree in all worthwhile human activities, was called in to aid the educational process long before Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned up to promote it. Children can memorize, and they should, and there is a great, colorful and playful repository of traditional gimmicks to help them.