Philosophy of Learning – Memorization

לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

Parallel to the development of Greek philosophy is the exploration of how human beings learn. The Greek poet Simonides is credited as the inventor of mnemonics, any learning device that aids in the retention of knowledge. Using mnemonics one trains the brain to retain information that a person acquires. For the use of knowledge, memorizing for a test is not enough, retrieving the memories later and in different contexts is the necessary second element. Mnemonic devices help a person recover the information from their memory. The spelling of the word “tomorrow” is a lesson from the primary grades accessed using a simple mnemonic to remember one “m” and two “r’s” in the word:  tom-or-row, which are three simple, common words.

As the body of knowledge grew, more elaborate forms of retention were developed such as “memory palaces” where the person would create an imaginary building with rooms. In each room the person would tag books or objects with individual facts, concepts, or ideas. By perusing the room later, the fact finder would go to the object and retrieve the tagged information. Spelling Bee contestants use a sophisticated form of this palace memory complete with Latin roots, rules for spelling grammar and of course, reams of words.

Not for centuries but for millennia, intelligence and competence have been judged on the amount of knowledge a person could digest and regurgitate. Chinese bureaucrats had to pass incredibly detailed exams of memorized lists to attain a post. As recorded in the Talmud, rabbinic students had to be able to identify any verse in the Hebrew Scriptures by the first three words in a verse, which is the convention used in the Talmudic and Midrashic texts when quoting a biblical verse. These mental athletes had intimate access to vast reams of information.

We are living in a time of exploding information expansion. In the sciences we double our knowledge every two years, which means that by the time a science major reaches his third year of college, half of what he learned the first two years is out of date. Nonetheless, the need for quick recall of data or its storage site is still critical. Students have to memorize more and more while jettisoning what has become invalid or irrelevant.

Search engines are not a substitute for memorization and recollection. “I will just google it” is a vast improvement over reference sections of libraries; however, the task of looking up data is not on par with knowing the material, retrieving it from memory, and manipulating the points of data to address a new issue or problem. Using internet search engines is not a substitute for memory.

Memorizing is tedious. Whether one is using flash cards or flipping the page back and forth or scrolling up and down, memorization takes time and concentration. Memorization and recollection are primary goals of homework. Homework is boring because one is learning to retain the material that will be manipulated in new ways in the next chapter, whether one is studying history or biology or reading good fiction. The previous chapters’ information inform the next chapter and the next chapter reinforces the chapters that came before.

Be forewarned – if we do not practice our memory after all of the effort to retain it, the information will fade and become irretrievable. The condescending retort “I have forgotten more in my lifetime than you will ever learn” is both a jab and a lament.

By Glenn Jacob

Rabbi, Community Leader, Fundraiser, Board Development, Non-profit management, strategic planning, educator, writer, and editor.

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