Getting Back to Basics

The Importance of Memorizing History

by Scott Powell

Judging from the periodic discussions that arise on homeschooling forums, today's homeschooling parents seem to be against memorization as a tool for learning, especially when it comes to history. For many parents, this negative perception of the value of memorization stems from their own experiences of memorizing historical facts in high school or college. Those few who do try to encourage their children to memorize historical information, following the recommendations offered by resources such as The Well-Trained Mind, find almost inevitably that their students rebel against the drudgery of it, and end by giving up. The result is that memorization is being stressed less and less in history education by homeschoolers.

If the goal of a proper education is to equip children with the trait of "historical-mindedness" (see "Why History," in Secular Homeschooling, Issue 4), then this is a terrible mistake.

Memorization — the act of committing information to memory, so that it can later be recalled without referring to an external source — is crucial to all learning, including the creation of a useful body of historical knowledge. The purpose of memorizing facts in any area is to automatize foundational knowledge, and thereby to automate thinking.

Before looking at how this principle applies to history, it is useful to examine the manner in which memorized information facilitates learning in other areas such as math and language acquisition.

When it comes to math, there is a complex set of symbols and algorithms that students must memorize to perform even the simplest work. There is no alternative. A child must, for instance, memorize the numerals and the skill of counting. As my two-year-old son will attest, this a taxing process at first. But gradually, as the memorized information is married with experience, it becomes as natural to manipulate it as it is to move one's fingers. To advance further in math, however, every child must eventually not only memorize the names of numbers like "11" and "111" but grasp the concept of place value notation, so that she can manipulate numbers such as these automatically when performing mathematical tasks. Naturally this requires considerable thinking, but then once the concept is grasped, it also necessitates extensive repetition, so that it becomes second nature. In addition, a child then has to learn and memorize the symbols representing arithmetic concepts (+, -, x, รท) and the procedures and algorithms for performing them (such as the vertical alignment of addends, the process of adding by columns, and the method of "carrying" when the sum of a column exceeds ten).

In math, this is only the beginning. When such basic knowledge and skills are automatized and combined with still more knowledge concerning fractions and decimals and the use of alphabetic symbols in "missing number" problems, students become ready for more advanced mathematical work, such as algebra. Every stage of learning in mathematics consists of grasping and memorizing a certain mathematical concept or method, and then applying it in concert with other automatized knowledge in a new way; then, once one has grasped that knowledge, memorizing it through repetition, in order to advance still further.

The principle that memorization is key to cementing foundational knowledge is also evident in language acquisition. A toddler, in the earliest stages of learning to speak, first mimics the sounds his parents and siblings make, and gradually learns to associate the sounds he hears with the objects or events in the swirl of his early existence. At a later stage, he begins to memorize the names of the letters of the alphabet. Still later, he memorizes that "A is for Apple, B is for Bat," etc., and he may begin to recognize the presence of certain letters in words he encounters often in his own personal context, such as his own name. (Interestingly, in this case various kinds of memorization usually precede understanding.)

At this point, the process becomes more complicated. One task involves the learning of phonics, i.e. learning and memorizing the sounds of letter groups. Another process is vocabulary acquisition — learning and memorizing words, their spelling, and their definition. This is a lot of work. Vocabulary and spelling are usually taught as distinct classes in a school day, and usually repeated at least twice within the school week, for the duration of an elementary education, if not through middle school. This is the only way to provide the constant repeated exposure to the language components that we require in order to become literate. A grasp of phonics paired with an ongoing effort to expand a child's vocabulary also puts him in a position to move to the next level: to acquire an automatized knowledge of the rules for using words together, which becomes more and more important as the compounding of her previously memorized knowledge facilitates more advanced language usage.

The end of this process is fluency. Sadly, when people achieve this level, it is all too common for them to forget all the effort to memorize that went into achieving it. How often do we stop to reflect on the fact that the only reason we can read a sentence like this one (let alone this entire article) and understand it is that we have memorized and automatized the use of the 26 alphabetic symbols, the more than forty phonemes of the English languages, as well as somewhere in between 10,000 and 20,000 words, and the grammatical rules necessary to integrate them into conceptual propositions?

Of course understanding the applicable mathematical and linguistic concepts involved in the foregoing progressions is indispensable. But just as indispensable is memorization. Without being able to retain what we understand and summon it without reference to external material, every adult would have to carry around a copy of Saxon Math54 just to find the percentage equivalent of a fraction, and a copy of Easy Grammar to achieve consistent subject-verb agreement (which a spelling checker won't help you with!)

Let us now turn to history, where the same general idea applies. There is no way to productively think about the past — as a practical issue related to successfully navigating through life in the present — without memorized knowledge.

When it comes to history, however, homeschooling parents can certainly be excused for thinking otherwise. There are good reasons for thinking that memorizing historical facts does not yield real knowledge, or for thinking that historical "fluency" does not matter.

The most important reason people dismiss the memorization of history is that they once memorized some considerable array of historical information as children, but did not experience any real benefits from it. Unfortunately, the type of memorization most people perform when studying history, and thus what they inevitably come to associate with memorization in general, is so-called "rote learning."

Anyone who has ever taken a high school or college history — or biology, or economics, or just about any other class — probably knows what it is to "learn" something by rote. Rote memorization is a form of memorization in which intensive repeated exposure to material — usually without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in that material — is used to acquire a semblance of knowledge in a short period of time. The reason why rote learning usually proceeds without understanding is a combination of poor teaching and poor learning skills and habits on the part of students. Students who prepare for tests by rote often do so because they didn't put out a continual effort to learn over the course of the year or semester.

Rote memorization is probably the most-used skill by students "cramming" for tests. You see them lining the hallways of schools quizzing each other with index cards about the five causes of the decline of the Yuan dynasty, the eight phases of cell mitosis, or the formula for calculating gross domestic product.

In a sense, rote memorization works. Many students, myself among them, have achieved excellent grades by employing such techniques for test preparation. The problem is that rote memorization by itself is not learning. It is little more than a temporarily convincing facsimile. "Learning" this way to pass tests is almost never learning for life.

When I think back to all the material that I once memorized for tests, I am astounded by how little of it I know now. As a former engineer, I can remember studying non-linear differential equations for an entire year and scoring well. Returning to that type of material now, after over fifteen years, and looking over the "Navier-Stokes Equation" that describes fluid motion, I realize that I might as well be looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs for all that it means to me.

Of course, you would expect to lose knowledge that you haven't used in fifteen years, but what about fifteen days? If you've ever crammed for tests and then performed the associated "brain dump," think back to how long that "knowledge" stayed with you. Usually, only until you start preparing for the next test. It's no wonder that if we were never taught any differently than to memorize by rote we would conclude that memorization is little more than a con.

The only time rote learning actually is learning is when the knowledge one is attempting to acquire can actually be acquired merely by observation. One can, for example, learn phone numbers by rote. (Is there any other way?) One learns the route to work by rote. One can learn the words to the national anthem or the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address by rote.

It is with examples such as these latter three, however, that the distinction between rote memorization and real learning starts to become evident. One might argue that you "know" the national anthem if you can recite it, but does the ability to recite something like the Declaration of Independence mean that one knows it?

Knowledge involves a meaningful grasp of reality, not merely an ability to parrot what others have said. To grasp the meaning of the Declaration of Independence means to know who wrote it and why, and what its place is in the annals of American history. It means to understand its relationship to the two other revolutionary documents of America's founding: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It means to know that it is a statement of ideals and a justification for treason (against the British Empire), but also that it is not in any sense the law of the land. In other words, to know the Declaration of Independence requires understanding not merely the words that make it up, but their context and significance. Abstract knowledge, such as relates to the most important world-altering events in history, cannot be "learned" by rote. It can only be acquired by a process of conceptual learning.

Because this is the case, it has become increasingly common for educational authorities and cultural commentators to eschew memorization in learning, and to stress other conceptual skills. The two notable alternatives to memorization trumpeted today are the acquisition of research skills (especially involving the use of information technology) and the development of critical thinking skills. These two are closely related. Supporters of the former approach hold that the important thing is not to know the answer to any particular question, but to be able to find it. Proponents of the latter view also deny that answers to particular questions matter at all; instead they champion the development of a general ability to come up with well-reasoned answers — research being merely one tool that can aid in this process.

According to Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital, "Kids should learn about history to understand the world and why things are the way they are. But they don't need to know all the dates. It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings, without having to memorize that it was in 1066. They can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google." According to Tapscott (and many others), it's "better to just have a general idea so you can focus on better understanding the context and meaning."

Only someone who doesn't take history seriously could hold such a view. One cannot focus on "better understanding the context and meaning" of historical events without being able to identify with exactness where, when, and by whom they were enacted. To use Tapscott's example, to know that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 and not in 1065 or 1067 — let alone in 966 or 1166 — is part and parcel of grasping its meaning as a historical event. In specific detail, for instance, to know that this pivotal battle in English history occurred after the Battle of Stamford Bridge (also of 1066) is crucial to understanding its causes and specific outcome. Among other things, this succession of battles points to the tri-partite contest for the English throne involving Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada (who fought at Stamford Bridge) and William of Normandy (who then defeated Godwinson at Hastings after Godwinson had defeated Hardrada at Stamford Bridge).

More broadly, to know the specific actors and the motives that drove their conflicts in 1066 is to understand how William's conquest is connected to pivotal events earlier and later in history. For instance, one of the critical facts about William's life is that he was (and continued to be) the Duke of Normandy before he became King of England. This makes him a key player in the power struggle between the descendants of Rollo the Viking (the first Duke of Normandy) and the kings of France, to whom they were nominally enfeoffed. In one critical chapter of this story, King John (a descendant of William) failed to uphold his feudal obligation to the French king, Philip II, and when he raised taxes to campaign in France against his king in 1214, engendered a baron's rebellion which culminated in the signing of the Magna Carta of 1215 (a rather significant precursor to the English Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence).

To be able to identify such connections, let alone think about them "critically," requires an awareness of specific facts, names, and dates. It is not possible to focus on any supposed "context and meaning" without them. As one critic of so-called critical thinking education has explained, "the processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought."

Still, one might argue that all the facts or "content of thought" can be collected by means of research, and that it isn't necessary to memorize any of them in order to be able to identify their sequencing and causal relationships, and ultimately their broader significance. But what would it mean to take this approach seriously?

In essence, it would mean starting from scratch at every turn, and researching one's way, not to knowledge, evidently — because that's something you retain in memory — but to some temporarily useful conclusion, presumably, which is then discarded after use, because it can always be reached by a process of research again.

Is that what history is? Just one research project after another — just busywork, or mental calisthenics for kids, which then becomes irrelevant for anyone other than ivory tower academics?

Sadly, many people think so. In any of life's important pursuits, no one would uphold the idea that research skills or critical thinking are a substitute for actual knowledge. But they do feel free to propose that they are when it comes to learning history. This is because people don't think knowledge of history really matters. In other words, they don't believe that retaining facts about the past bears any essential connection to making one's way successfully through life in the present.

Not only is this wrong, but history — appropriately enough — shows us how wrong it is.

The most elegant example of the power of history as a guide to life lies in the founding of the United States. When James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and their illustrious contemporaries assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, the critical question they faced was how to more effectively unite the Thirteen Colonies. That they correctly viewed this as the central issue of their deliberations in creating a viable nation dedicated to individual rights stemmed from the fact that they were all fluent in ancient Greek and Roman history.

References to these historical examples were constantly made during the Convention at Philadelphia and in the pamphlets and tracts that permeated the subsequent ratification debates. As John Adams explained, history provided "the knowledge of the principles and construction of free governments" demonstrated by the "the ancient seats of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome." Based on these instructive cases, the Founders worked tirelessly to create not a "volcano of democracy" subject to the "tumult of the people" but a republic, wherein, thanks to a proper statement of the purpose of government and a constitutional apparatus entrenching a separations of powers, in the words of James Madison "security arises to the rights of the people."

From history, the Founders sought crucial instruction and insight, and irreplaceable inspiration. They understood not only the danger of the majority violating rights, as through the example of the execution of Socrates, but through other examples such as the unjust ostracisms of Cimon and Aristides. They admired the individual virtue of Roman hero Cincinnatus, but avoided the aristocratic outlook inherent in creating an aristocratic order, the "Cincinnati." They stood on the shoulders of giants like Solon, Gaius Licinius, and Cicero, in order to see further than anyone before. "Without the classical example," states historian Hannah Arendt "...none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action."

Could they have done it without full command of the classical examples of Greece and Rome, including a vast array of memorized facts? Wouldn't it have been enough for the Founders to be able to Google their history?

Let us imagine Patrick Henry, on the floor of the House of Burgesses, enunciating one of his most famous historical lessons — but without his automatized knowledge of history:

"Caesar had his Brutus, and Charles I his Cromwell, and George III ... wait ... was it Charles I or Charles II?...I know it was an English king some time, but I can't remember which. And wait, was it Antony or Brutus? Anybody got a Blackberry? Anyways, you get my point,...right?"

Can anyone imagine Thomas Jefferson beginning his immortal Declaration with the following lines: "We hold these truths to be findable by means of checking Wikipedia..."

The self-evidency with which the Founders treated the most abstract political questions came from their automatized awareness of human history and political theory. Memorized knowledge of history was an indispensable asset to them, not for diversion or for the sake of being cultured, but because it gave them the tools to create a world worth living in.

Thomas Jefferson valued history so highly that he proposed a "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" by which he intended to legislate the study of Greek and Roman history. Like his peers, Jefferson believed that knowledge of history was necessary "that republican liberties be safeguarded." This is part of what Ben Franklin meant when he was asked as he left the Convention, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" He answered "A republic, if you can keep it."

Have we? Does the current generation of Americans even know that America is a republic, let alone what insights went into creating it and what historical lessons can help sustain it in the modern era? Politicians from both parties now regularly refer to America as a "democracy" and propose to champion this form of government around the world. The Founders must be rolling over in their graves. One wonders whether Americans would so morosely accept the state of modern politics, if they memorized and thus carried with them, a proper knowledge of the history of the Athenian Democracy, the Roman Republic, and their own country.

Scott Powell is a historian living in Houston, TX. Follow his blog www.HistoryAtOurHouse.com for practical tips on how to properly incorporate memorization into your history curriculum.

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