Rote Rites and Rongs
by Kenneth Lyen
In defence of memorization, Michael Beran argues that this is an important aspect of education that has too often been jettisoned in the name of creativity.
Memorization of words and poetry gives one the instruments of thought and imagination, and quite the opposite of suppressing imagination and creativity, can "unlock doors in the interior world of the soul... and give kids a language, at once subtle and copious, in which to articulate their own thoughts, perceptions, and inchoate feelings." Beran says that memorization can "help awaken what was previously dormant, actualize what was before only potential, and so enable the young person to fulfill the injunction of Pindar: Become what you are."
The Chinese educational system, and the ancient civil service exam is well known for its emphasis on rote learning. Large chunks of texts are memorized and regurgitated for the exams. This ability helps select those who are best suited for the civil service, a largely administrative bureaucracy, superficially not requiring too much creative thinking. However, it could be argued that the success of the ancient Chinese administration is in fact due to the ability of its civil servants to be able to solve practical problems.
Because it is far easier to evaluate how much information you have memorized than to assess how original and imaginative you are, educationalists have tended to err on the side of constructing exams that measure rote learning rather than creativity. This perpetuates the old system.
Indeed the system of rote learning persists in Singapore. School children here memorize gigabytes of data only to disgorge them at exams, leaving their minds empty again, and thereby freeing them for refilling with yet more facts and figures. The system obviously works because Singapore scores quite highly on international comparative assessments of educational achievement, and Singapore students consistently gain top honours at universities throughout the world.
Michael Beran and generations of educationalists do have a valid point. Rote learning is an important aspect of education. One has to be careful not to throw out the rote learning baby with the apparently filthy bath water alleged to drown creativity and imagination. The problem is trying to achieve the right balance of memorization and cultivating problem-solving and inventive thinking activities.
In the past, educationalists have solved the problem by dividing a subject into two halves. For example we studied English Literature and memorized Shakespeare and other literary works. Then we went to another class to study English Language, where we wrote essays and other imaginative compositions. Sometimes we do not understand what we have memorized. However, the meaning slowly sinks in, and then at a later date, we have that sudden flash of insight. Hence it may not be so bad that we may not always immediately grasp the deeper meaning of stuff we memorize. So why fix a system that has not yet broken down, and has served us so well over the centuries?
Yes, I am deliberately being provocative!