Why Do We Need to Memorise Stuff at School? #218 (P)
On the Amish, Aristotle and Schiller’s Ballads
Dear supporters of Daily Philosophy,
Today my daughter, about to change from primary to secondary school, asked me the question that has probably haunted most parents: Why do we need to memorise all that stuff in school?
This article is my answer to her.
What is the value of school?
What is the value of a sewing class, for example, at a time when nobody in their right minds voluntarily sews at home? To buy a T-shirt is a lot cheaper than to make one, especially if one considers the time spent in addition to the tools and materials needed. Or what is the point of a pottery class?
But it does not end with crafts. What is the actual value of much of arithmetic for the average human life? I can confidently say that I have, in my 55 years on this Earth, never performed a division by hand, except when being forced to by a teacher. (I can be so sure because I immediately forgot how to do this after primary school was over). The only manual calculations that occur in my daily life are additions, subtractions and multiplications of single-digit numbers. For everything else I use my phone or my computer. The only remarkably hard arithmetic skills that would actually have been useful, time calculations, we never learned at school: If my daughter’s class begins at 8:15 and lasts 75 minutes, when do I have to pick her up again? Or: If I go for a 17 day holiday on July 28th, when will I arrive back home? It doesn’t help that we’re still counting these things the way the ancient Babylonians thought would make the most sense: in number systems based on 12 and 60, while trying to covert the results to decimal on the fly.
And finally, memorisation: My father, a Greek man born in the 1930s, had been required to learn ancient Greek speeches by heart. Seventy years later, he could still recite multiple of Lysias’ speeches. My German mother, schooled in the 1940s, had memorised Schiller’s Ballads and would declaim the lines of “The Pledge” to the silent olive trees while our ancient Skoda careened down the dusty, sun-baked goat-paths toward some hidden beach.
I have sometimes envied them these treasures that they had assimilated, made part of who they were by incorporating them firmly into their minds. But a more practical person might ask: what benefit did they get from being able to recall the exact words put down by long-dead men? Was it really worth the trouble?
Today, my children are not asked to memorise poems or speeches any more. Schools try to reduce memorising to the absolutely necessary. Memorisation is seen as the lazy way to teach, and “knowledge” is at the rock bottom of educational achievements according to Bloom’s taxonomy. But is this development a good thing, sign of a progressive, modern education that hits just the right verbs in Bloom’s list? Or are we perhaps becoming poorer as a society because we do not any more own our culture in the way the generations before us did?
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