How ‘critical thinking’ and outsourcing of memory are withering culture, and how to turn the tide
‘The disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dali
…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Socrates, The Phaedrus
Sitting next to the porcelain-tiled stove in my grandmother’s Swiss kitchen, I used to lay out a large array of memory game cards and challenge her to a round. She was 80, I was 8, so I would invariably win with a huge stack, proud of my apparently superior memory. Fast forward a couple of decades and you would see my own children taking joy in trying to beat me in the game (we have a wonderful memory set based on Monet’s impressionist paintings). Yet, memorization is no child’s play. According to psychologist Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows-What the internet is doing to our brains, the increased outsourcing of memory threatens not only the depths and distinctiveness of the self, but of the culture we all share: ‘Outsource memory, and culture withers.’ Memory is fighting a battle on two fronts: the ‘critical thinking’ machine of the educational system, and the easy lure of a tech exo-brain at our fingertips.
In former times, students memorized poems, the presidents, Latin conjugations, and famous speeches such as the Gettysburg Address. It was a foundational method of learning, and while laborious and tedious for many, it was simply done. Until, that is, ‘progressive’ educators in the mid-twentieth century decided that memorization was just an outdated mechanical activity. They claimed it didn’t produce true knowledge, but was mere cud chewing.
Educators were trained to hold up Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy of Learning, which led to a canonical disdain of memorization in the classroom. Students were steered toward ‘higher order skills’ such as analyzing and synthesizing, rather than frittering time away with supposedly ‘lower order skills’ such as knowing and memorizing. But how do you analyze and solve problems without a solid base of knowledge?
In his article There is No Thinking without Memorizing, Jon Schaff draws an analogy to the architect encountered by Gulliver at the Grand Academy of Lagado: Attempting to build abstract thinking without a knowledge base is akin to attempting to build a house starting from roof tiles. There is literally no foundation. Even Swift himself, recognized that it is a thing of impossibility to ‘think for yourself’ when you don’t have much to think about.
For many years now, the most highly prized skill in educational circles has been ‘critical thinking’. It is viewed as the holy grail of learning and portrayed as the very antithesis of rote memorization. Teachers insist that they do not want students to memorize words and facts, claiming it might render kids into mere robots; instead they want them to think about words and facts critically, elevating them to the level of ‘independent thinkers’. This sounds reasonable enough, even laudable. But is it?
The more factual knowledge people have about a topic, the better they can think about it critically and analytically. In 1946, a groundbreaking study demonstrated that the reason expert chess players chose better moves than weaker players was not because they were better analytical thinkers. It was because they had a vast knowledge store of typical chess positions, acquired through memorization, that they could draw on. Committing knowledge to long-term memory is virtually unlimited. The more knowledge you have stored in long-term memory, the fewer items take up valuable space in working memory. This is why students who have trained their memories perform better on tasks that require analysis. Raemon Matthews, trainer for the U.S. Memory Championships, states that, ‘…education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you cannot have higher-level learning – you can’t analyze – without retrieving information.’ In other words, memorization is not antithetical to critical or analytical thinking, instead it forms the foundations for it.
In a recent First Things article titled Sweat the Small Stuff, Mark Bauerlein discusses the shift toward critical thinking and how it ushered in not just a modified pedagogy, but a dismantling of cultural tradition:
‘Critical thinking was sold to educators as a neutral inquisition; …[but has led to] a methodological change which had steered the meaning of the past in an ideological direction—a sweeping shift that began with the discrediting of memorization. Memorization, it turned out, was one of the foundations of a traditional formation of the young. Its loss opened the door to progressive lessons in Western and American guilt, in patriarchy and colonialism, in false heroes and white privilege…The more sophisticated theorists of change knew all along what critical thinking would do to the traditional contents of the curriculum. They didn’t need to declare open war on Western Civ (though some did anyway). The shift from memorization to critical thinking would do the job.’
‘Critical thinking’ has thus emerged as the pedagogical wolf in sheep’s clothing. Memorization is form of ‘adherence to the past’, a passing on of the torch of tradition. Critical thinking is a form of deconstruction, knocking out the foundational cornerstones that our cultural heritage rests on. Memorization upholds the ‘materials of yore’ by echoing their exact form. Students cannot simply alter the words of a Shakespeare sonnet or the Gettysburg address. Critical thinking, on the other hand, cuts these materials down, ‘poses incisive questions, pulls out buried assumptions, rethinks, and reexamines. The first operation maintains the past; the second claims superiority to it.’
Bauerlein points out that the loss of memorization is not only a separation from the ‘grand lineage of civilization’, but it is a particular loss to the teenage mind:
For when a sixteen-year-old learns Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ by heart, she labors in productive and healthy grooves. Her vocabulary grows: ‘hoard,’ ‘scudding,’ ‘unburnish’d,’ and ‘sceptre’ never pop up on her phone screen…We can add that the poem is a dramatic monologue, with Ulysses speaking in his own voice. That forces our sixteen-year-old to get inside the Greek’s head, to imagine his experience and longing, to figure his motives.
In an age where teenagers’ technology use is linked to a decline in empathy, memorization can be an incredibly valuable tool to get into a character’s mind. You cannot easily memorize lines spoken by a character without feeling with that character, indeed becoming that character. This identification allows the teenage mind to develop ‘cognitive empathy’, which is an act that does not require moral affirmation of the other person, but is instead ‘an act of imagination in which one recreates the mental life of another inside oneself, and it happens even when the teen abhors the character.’ Thus this form of memorization is a practice that is invaluable for teenagers, who are particularly prone to self-absorption.
The Web as a ‘technology of forgetfulness’
The true art of memory is the art of attention
– Samuel Johnson
Memorization is not only losing the battle against the educational machine, but is rendered cannon fodder when facing the front lines of outsourcing memory to tech. Why spend time memorizing when you can just Google it? The lure of easy ‘knowledge’ is a tap away and seems to make committing knowledge to heart a senseless waste of time.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been engrossed in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows – What the internet is doing to our brains, and have been disturbed by the serious threat tech poses to the formation of our memory. And his book was published in 2010! I often wonder what his reaction would be to the most recent AI and ChatGPT developments.
One of Carr’s central tenets is that the Web, rather than improving our minds with its copious expanse of information, has instead revealed itself to be a ‘technology of forgetfulness’.
He explains that ‘the key to memory consolidation is attentiveness.’ We all know from our own experience how insidiously distracting the Web and any digital devices are (see my posts here and here for more on this). However, storing explicit memories, and actually forming connections between them, ‘requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense, intellectual or emotional engagement.’ This means that the incessant distraction we experience in our use of digital technology does not even allow for memory consolidation to get started.
According to Carr, the sheer deluge of information that bombards us, ‘places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties, but obstructing the consolidation of long term memories and the development of schemas’. To make matters even worse, our brains are incredibly adaptive. This means that the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted, to process information quickly without sustained attention, and to inadvertently become not adept at remembering, but at forgetting.
We are thus caught in a never-ending oxymoron. The Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, leading us to rely more on the Webs artificial memory, which in turn weakens our ability to remember. We are far less able to recall information that we expect to be able to have access to in the future.
In referencing Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Carr states that,
…our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of the body they ‘amplify’, to the point even of ‘autoamputation’. When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions.
In other words, when we fall for the lure of outsourcing our memory to a machine, we in turn also outsource a very important part of what forms our identity, and become alienated from what makes us human.
How to turn the tide
Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory.
Joshua Foer, USA Memory Champion
I am not claiming that I have the perfect solution to ‘The Great Forgetting’. Yet, I do believe that all change starts basically at the kitchen table. That means that I can contribute to turning the tide, and so can you, if you wish.
We may not need to start by memorizing Homer or Socrates, but we do need to start by putting technology in its proper place. To this point, the latest post by Pilgrims in the Machine, A Pilgrims Creed , includes a fitting statement:
I believe in cognitive liberty, which is the freedom to concentrate, reason, remember, feel, imagine, perceive, and use language, without manipulation or control by others or technology.
Working towards achieving ‘cognitive liberty’ is the most fundamental artillery in winning the battle over our memory. I have outlined some suggestions for how to get started on this in Reclaiming Your Stolen Focus.
The next step is to deliberately nurture memory. This requires patience, diligence, and time. But just like teaching your own children, planting a garden, raising chicks, or baking your own bread, it produces a worthwhile and uniquely satisfying outcome. You can start by memorizing anything: poems, monarchs, Bible verses, sonnets, famous speeches, pi, etc. The aim is to steer away from our reliance on outsourcing our memory to machines, and instead develop habits that allow our biological memory to find a firm foothold.
Below I have provided a selection of memory work I have completed with my own kids and with students in the homeschool co-op I organize which includes facts, poetry, and famous speeches. Some of the tasks were very demanding, yet I have consistently observed that it produces joy in children when they have mastered something challenging. How often does a child excitedly turn and say, ‘Mom, look what Google said!’? Merely reading facts from a bottomless pit of information brings no personal pride in achievement. Reciting the periodic table, a speech by Lincoln or Churchill, or a poem by Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, does.
For memorizing facts, there few strategies more enjoyable, fun, and stunningly effective than the link-and-story method. Memorize Academy has perfected this approach by joining it with ‘whiteboard animation’. This technique uses ‘visualization and association to leverage the astonishing natural power of visual memory’. In other words, the images just stick so well that memorization is a breeze. One of the fourth grade students in my homeschool chemistry co-op recently told me, ‘I know the first 30 elements of the periodic table like I know my name!’
I have tried this with students as young as grade 3 all the way to high school and it worked perfectly for all of them. Here is a sample video of the ‘How to Memorize the Periodic Table’ to give you a taste for the link-and-story method. With this method you can memorize the entire periodic table in around three hours.
For more, check out Memorize Academy for the complete list of memorization programs, which include the entire periodic table, 195 countries & capitals, books of the Bible, as well as advanced memory coaching. You can access many of the videos for free on the site’s blog. Once you get the idea of the method, you can easily develop your own version of the link-and-story method for facts you would like to memorize.
For further reading memorizing facts, Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a fascinating page-turner.
Why memorize poetry? Michael Knox Beran wrote a striking essay, In Defense of Memorization, in which he demonstrates how memorization is not the ‘drill and kill’ progressive educators make it out to be, but instead empowers children. Here are some of the benefits of memorizing poetry Beran reports:
- Activates language capability
- Builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax
- Classic verse teaches students about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry etc.
- Increases the breadth and depth of vocabulary, leading to greater comprehension of difficult material
- Vocabulary memorized in poetry stays at ‘mental fingertips’ for use in speech and writing
- Content of poetry fosters a ‘cultural literacy’ since poetry is often a ‘pithy expression of the culture’s accumulated wisdom’
In an his article Why We Should Memorize which appeared in The New Yorker, Brad Leithauser presents a profound argument for how poetry changes not just our brain, but also our heart:
‘The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen’.
Here is an example of a poem my homeschool co-op students memorized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. We used the Mensa for Kids Poem #10 template. I then broke the poem down into three practice lessons, which left students to fill in the missing words. After several rounds of practice and dedication, the students were able to recite the complete poem.
You can find more tips on how to memorize poetry as well as a list of 10 classic poems to commit to heart on Mensa’s A Year of Living Poetically.
Memorizing famous speeches has been a practice since the ‘Golden Age of Eloquence’ in Ancient Greece. The following is a collection of excerpts of great speeches I compiled for students to memorize including, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B.Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Indira Ghandi, Elizabeth I, and more.
In Fahrenheit 451, a future dystopia with some parallels to our own time, Montag, the story’s protagonist, chances upon a band of intellectuals who with monk-like diligence memorized ancient works of literature. While ‘progressive’ educators would relegate their mental efforts to the lowest level of learning, in Bradbury’s view they managed to preserve civilization.
The tide of the Great Forgetting is fierce, but not unstoppable. By choosing to reclaim ‘cognitive liberty’, we have yet a chance to win the battle over our memory.
Do you find it challenging to use your memory? Do you feel that our loss of memory is leading to a decline of our cultural heritage? Do you practice any memory work with your kids?
Come and join the conversation on my Substack School of the Unconformed!