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In Praise of Homeschool Memorization

Memorization gets a bad rap. I often hear people dunking on it. They complain about having to memorize dates for history. They lament memorizing the periodic table in chemistry. Or the various theorems you encounter in math. Or the lists of vocabulary necessary to master a foreign language. And on and on.

This has led some to opt for an education free of rote memorization—an education where students focus on the general concepts without getting their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of things like the atomic weight of Manganese or the 3rd person singular pluperfect active of dicere.

I understand not wanting to memorize. And, of course, there are some educational models where memorization takes a backseat. Approaches based on unschooling, for example, might not get into memorization at all. So not everyone is going to take to memorization. Point granted.

The issue is not whether one chooses to memorize but with speaking of memorization as if it is bad, outdated, or harmful. Today, it has become more and more common to see memorization being disparaged as an antiquated pedagogical practice that has been supplanted by better ways of doing things. As a result, memorization today is considered dull and uninspiring, a vain repetition that does not spark the joy of learning.

However, we should not be so quick to chuck memorization, especially given its long and successful pedigree (going back to ancient Greece)—and given that the ideologies that have replaced it have proved highly questionable. The mind-boggling “new math” that was unrolled as part of the Common Core initiative grew out of an effort to replace memorization with conceptual understanding.

We should, therefore, give memorization a second chance. There are several reasons to prefer memorization:

1. Some Subjects Require Memorization

The fact is, some subjects require memorization for mastery. To master chemistry, you must memorize the periodic table. To master history, you must memorize dates (which I have praised elsewhere as a good and necessary practice). Any foreign language requires memorizing vocabulary lists, declensions, conjugations, and rules for translation. Mathematics requires the memorization of theorems and formulae. Biology requires memorizing many scientific words like mitosis, mitochondria, and cytoplasm. Learning to play music requires memorizing musical notation. Even theology necessitates the memorization of various terms and concepts. There simply is no way to master any subject without committing to some degree of memorization.

This is true in life, as well. What is learning a new routine at work other than memorization? Or learning how to cook something well? Or any other of the numb tasks adults must deal with?

2. Children are Fully Capable of Memorizing with Success

It is often objected that kids find memorization dull and struggle with it. I beg to differ. Children have no problem memorizing the rules of a sport they are learning. Or the location of power-ups in a video game. Or the names of characters from the Silmarillion. If you ever doubt that kids can memorize, find one who is into Pokémon and ask them to name the different kinds of Pokémon on what powers they have. That will divest you of the notion that children can’t memorize.

Furthermore, generations of children before modernity were educated on rote memorization with excellent results. Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and all of history’s intellectual giants began their education with rote memorization.

3. It’s Not Either-Or

Children clearly can memorize when they desire—and have fun doing it! The problem is not that kids can’t memorize. It is that they often dislike memorizing the particular subject matter required in school. Why can a child memorize all 1015 Pokémon but struggle with memorizing the dates of the Civil War? Simply because they are interested in the former but not the latter.

The fact is children thrive on memorization when they enjoy the subject matter and have a solid conceptual grasp of what they are memorizing and why. Memorization should not be contrasted to conceptual education, as if children either memorize or study concepts. Rather, conceptual education sets up the framework of understanding that can then be populated by input derived from memorization. The Latin teacher explains the concept (“Here’s how we conjugate a second conjugation verb”), allowing the student to populate that concept with memorization (“Now study this list of second conjugation verbs”). The two are meant to work together.

4. Focus on Teaching Well

This ultimately devolves into a teaching problem. Memorization becomes a chore when students don’t like the subject matter, don’t understand what they are doing, or feel like they are just cramming useless information. I am convinced that this is why children often react so negatively to it—teachers often impose memorization as if memorization itself is the subject matter. Parents and teachers aren’t exactly sure how they should be teaching, so they default to memorization.

However, we should view memorization as a tool, like a pencil or a calculator. It is not the subject matter but a tool to help master it. Rather than pitching the tool, let’s learn how to use it effectively within the context of our educational endeavors. If your student really enjoys history, they won’t struggle as much with memorizing dates. If they love Latin, they won’t have as much difficulty mastering vocabulary. Memorization in service of well-rounded, engaging teaching can yield fantastic results.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join us at our Catholic homeschool community.

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