Memorization: Good, Bad or Neutral?

Dear Reader,

I recently reviewed John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction, but I wanted to touch again on some of the specifics of his argument. One idea he presents particularly intrigued me.

Gatto has a few things to say about memorization, which is the cornerstone of our (public) educational system but of which he is not a fan:

” . . . memorizing the dots — is the gold standard if intellectual achievement. Not connecting those dots.” (p. 16)

His point here is not only that memorization is ineffective but that it can be actually detrimental to real education. Gatto goes on to say that:

“Twelve to twenty years of stupefying memorization drills weakens the hardiest intellects.” (p. 17)

I will admit a certain glee at reading Gatto’s words. We do in our homeschool do some memory work (a la Charlotte Mason) but memorization itself is by no means the backbone of our approach. I have at times been intimidated by all children can seem to learn in the classical method with its emphasis on memorization in the early years. So it is nice to hear someone say that not only is all this memory work unnecessary, it may actually be harmful. And I can see how this would be true. Paths are worn in the mind be repeated thoughts and actions and so perhaps the act of memorizing information endlessly tends to make one less able to assimilate ideas or to form one’s own.

Now I am not willing to give up memory work completely. We do do map drills and we memorize various sorts of passages (this year we are concentrating on Shakespeare; in the past we have done Bible or poetry). But I tend to think of these as a minor part of what we do. And it is all balanced out with lots of reading of real, living books. I suspect that Gatto would agree that it is not that all memorization is bad but that when it becomes our modus operandi to the exclusion of other methods that it becomes truly harmful.  Gatto, like Mason, has a lot to say about interacting with real things and with ideas. I do have one more post planned on what he calls “open source education.” A lot of it sounds very familiar from CM.

Nebby

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I think this is why I love Miss Mason’s approach to memory work! She worked with wholes, not disconnected facts — so we see longish passages of Scripture, whole poems, whole songs. And then when she did “fact” memory work, she made sure they understood the ideas first. The more I read, the more I appreciate her ideas. 🙂

    I do wonder if the public schools are doing very much memory work. I don’t remember beings asked to do much beyond math facts…I think focusing on memory work seems to be more of a neoclassical bent, but maybe I am just ignorant about what the public schools are doing. That is a definite possibility!

    Reply

    • I think part of the problem is that I have really been talking about two different things as memory work. What I do, and you too I assume, is very CM memorization of passages whether they be Bible, poetry,Shakespeare or something else. The main other area we do memory work is map drill though I suppose my kids have had to memorize math facts too though we never did it as an assignment (no flashcards or anything). Gatto talks about schools being mostly about memorization but I don’t think they are doing the kind of work we do other than the math facts and maybe something like map drill. But they do rely heavily on “learn what I tell you to learn” without a lot of thought being encouraged. I know my time on school was mostly cram and learn what they say I need to know for the test and then forget it pretty soon afterwards. The wonderful thing about CM-style narration is that it allows the student to say what is important and they are not just learning what an adult has said they should.

      Reply

  2. […] a couple of posts now on John Taylor Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction (see here and here), but I wanted to look specifically at the method of education which he describes in this volume. […]

    Reply

  3. […] my last post generated by John Taylor Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction (see this one, this one, and this one). Overall, I have liked Gatto’s book and would recommend that everyone read […]

    Reply

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