Tuesday, June 04, 2002

"TWO ZULUS BUGGERED MY CAT": No, this isn't a sordid attempt to increase readership by showing up on twisted Google searches. It's a mnemonic John Derbyshire claim English medical students use to memorize "the five branches of the facial nerve (temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, cervical)" in his essay on the educational benefits memorization. I ran across his essay, and one on the same subject by Claudia Winkler, in this post on The Corner. As Winkler and Derbyshire both point out, memorization and rote learning are practically taboo in modern education. But how educated can one be without them? I ran into this cultural resistance to memorization when I was a German TA for undergraduates. They couldn't accept that the best way for them to learn irregular verbs was to write them over and over again until they had them memorized, but since they were adults and weren't headed off for immersion in a German-speaking country, I really couldn't offer a better way. I know the benefits of memorization first hand. I wasn't homeschooled, technically, but got plenty of schooling at home from my mother, who came up with mnemonics for everything, including a poem for counting by threes (available upon request). In second grade, we had to memorize a poem, and I chose Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing." (Today, I can still recite it to my son every time I take him to the park.) Winkler notes that "rote memorization" means learning "by memory alone, without understanding or thought," which is why modern educational orthodoxy criticizes it. But what's so bad about learning something without understanding it? Memorization for its own sake is a great exercise of the brain. My husband (bless his heart) can't get the words right to any song, while I can sing the Kingston Trio tunes I learned at my father's knee without fudging the words. My husband's defense is that he doesn't want to clutter up his brain with pointless facts, but what's a brain for if not for getting cluttered? And the more we clutter our brains, the more space we'll find in them. More importantly, memorizing information without understanding it the first time around makes it easier to understand it later. Children quickly learn songs without understanding the lyrics or the music. My two-and-a-half-year old son, thanks to some ambitious Bible school teachers, informed me the other day that "The Bible was written by holy men inspired by God." (It doesn't quite sound that way when he says it, but then, I can understand toddlerese.) He doesn't know what that doctrine means, any more than he knows that "Big Rock Candy Mountain" is an old hobo song (sanitized, but only slightly, for children). But these presently meaningless words are the framework to which he will someday attach knowledge and understanding. And once he fixes words in his memory, and attaches ideas to those words, they will stay with him the rest of his days. In short, if they memorize it, understanding will come. Now if only I could think up a mnemonic for spelling "mnemonic."

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