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45: The Crusade Against Knowledge--THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST MEMORY

 
If the goal is ignorance,
you have two choices:
skip the teaching part;
or the remembering part.

 
The Crusade Against Knowledge
__________________________________________________________________ 
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST MEMORY
 

This is a tragic story but with some comic overtones. Starting more than a century ago, this country’s Education Establishment embarked on a schizophrenic quest to praise and promote education while making sure that not much of it occurred.

I said schizophrenic but you might prefer the words disingenuous, hypocritical, deceitful, double-dealing, unscrupulous, mendacious, shifty, or perfidious.

As a practical matter, educators couldn’t very well announce that they wanted students to possess as little knowledge as possible, with only enough reading and writing to be workers or serfs. Some subtlety was required, and some misdirection.

So educators did not praise ignorance. Instead, they praised policies and attitudes that would invariably lead to ignorance. Ingenious, huh? One might say diabolical.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Dumbing-down was certainly not on any citizen’s Wish List. If we got dumbing-down, that has to be because our top educators decided among themselves that dumber was what they desired America to be. And why would they decide that? For ideological reasons. Then, as now, the  “enlightened” people tended to be socialists.

In schools, this tendency favored cooperative children, minimal competition, and as much leveling as could be managed. Our educators were concerned with creating peas in a pod.
 
All the things traditionally esteemed in education became irrelevant, even a nuisance.

Have I exaggerated? Not at all. This crusade against knowledge, this campaign against memory, this devotion to ignorance, can be told via endless quotes from the top minds in the field of education.

When reading these quotes, imagine you are a teacher. Imagine these injunctions come down to you from Teachers College or your state superintendent. You can probably imagine the damaging changes you would have to make to conform. (There are 8 quotes; skip ahead if you are already familiar with them.)

In 1897 John Dewey wrote: “The true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, not literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activity.” In 1899 he added:  “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.” So there go facts, truths, and learning.

In 1911 Professor Stanley Hall made the case for illiteracy: “The knowledge which illiterates acquire is probably a much larger proportion of it practical. Moreover, they escape much eyestrain and mental excitement, and, other things being equal, are probably more active and less sedentary. It is possible, despite the stigma our bepedagogued age puts upon this disability, for those who are under it not only to lead a useful, happy, virtuous life, but to be really well educated in many other ways.”

In 1929 Edward Thorndike and Arthur Gates, in their textbook about education, zeroed in on the real problems: “Artificial exercises, like drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value.”

In 1936 the NEA Journal summed up the guiding philosophy: "Let us not think...in terms of specific facts or skills [that children acquire] but rather in terms of growing."

In 1942 three education professors wrote “Adventures in American Education,” which describes a curriculum under which seventh-grade pupils would devote six weeks to “orientation to school” and 30 weeks to “home and family life.” There is a section on the care of clothing, on jobs, on relationships with parents, brothers and sisters, but no references to reading, writing, or arithmetic.

Professor William H. Kilpatrick, who has been hailed as the “Grand Master” of the cult, tended to lump mathematics with Latin and physics, and concluded at about this time, “There is little practical value to warrant the time spent on them.” What Kilpatrick could write purple prose about was practical stuff, which he called “real needs.” Filling out forms, learning to drive, and decorating a house in the suburbs. That’s real!

About 1950 educator Wilbur Yauch wrote: “More than 90% of the arithmetic...taught at the typical old-style schools has no future practical value to the average child...[T]he emphasis in these [new] schools is on problems that are down to earth, such as accounting for the school lunch money.”

In 1951 A. H. Lauchner, principal of a junior high school, famously said: “Through the years, we've built a sort of halo around reading, writing, and arithmetic. We've said they were for everybody....When we come to the realization that not every child has to read, figure and spell...then we shall be on the road to improving the junior high curriculum.”

THE NEXT HALF-CENTURY

Here’s the fascinating part: those early prescriptions were bluntly candid. (What I’ve elsewhere called dumbing-down in your face!) Starting in the early 1950’s, however, the public began to rebel. Critics wrote bitterly about the anti-intellectualism of educators. In response, the top educators became more cunning and sneaky. They devised what seems to me a dark tide of clever sophistries. Each of these had a handsome sheen; it could be presented to the public as an ingenious gift to children. In practice, these sophistries never delivered what was promised. Typically, they delivered precisely that mediocrity for which our educators had publicly yearned a few decades earlier!
 
The two best-known gimmicks, discussed elsewhere on this site, sabotaged reading and arithmetic. (Whole Word devastated reading and sparked the Reading Wars. New Math and Reform Math devastated arithmetic and remain a major front in the Education Wars. See "30: The War Against Reading" and "36: The Assault on Math.")

But perhaps the most devastating gimmick of all was not well recognized. It was subtle and operated invisibly. However, it showed up in all subjects, for all ages, from k to college, and thus spread its damage widely. This was the attack on memorization itself. This attack, implicit in Dewey pre-1900, called for the steady demonization of knowing anything, of actually having knowledge inside your head. We might think of it as an officially-promoted cultural amnesia.

Memorization was always called “rote memorization” or “rote learning,” and educators made clear that this activity was bad, to be blunt about it. Good students didn’t do this thing; and good teachers would be ashamed if they asked anyone to commit this crime. A new branch of anti-cognitive science or anti-epistomology seemed to arise. It’s all settled: you can’t know anything; you shouldn’t know anything. So a fog of ignorance wafted over the country.

You can go on major reference sites today, and find this sophistry in all its well-refined glory. 

ASK.COM: “Those who criticize rote learning assert that it involves learning facts without developing a deep understanding of them. This lack of understanding makes it impossible to grasp meaning and apply and transfer the knowledge to other areas.”

Dreadful nonsense. “Impossible to grasp meaning.” Is that an appropriate description of what happens when a medical student memorizes the names of the nerves; or a child in third-grade memorizes the names of the planets?

REFERENCE.COM: “Rote learning is a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization...Rote learning, by definition, eschews comprehension, however, and consequently, it is an ineffective tool in mastering any complex subject at an advanced level. Rote learning is sometimes disparaged with the derogative terms parrot fashion, regurgitation, cramming, or mugging because one who engages in rote learning may give the wrong impression of having understood what they have written or said. It is strongly discouraged by many new curriculum standards.”


WIKIPEDIA: “Rote learning is a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization.”


NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TEACHERS OF MATHEMATICS (NCTM): “More than ever, mathematics must include the mastery of concepts instead of mere memorization and the following of procedures. More than ever, school mathematics must include an understanding of how to use technology to arrive meaningfully at solutions to problems instead of endless attention to increasingly outdated computational tedium."

A professor from Harvard consulted with a city in Virginia and lamented, in the local newspaper, that some students might “successfully regurgitate facts.” What a metaphor. Knowledge as vomit. That’s the sophistry reduced to its essence.

THE GIMMICK  AT PRESENT
Even as this late date (2009), an education professor can come charging along with the whole anti-memory package in hand. Here’s a press release I just found on the web: “Rote Memorization Of Historical Facts Adds To Collective Cluelessness.”

Apparently, in this professor’s world, vast numbers of American are being flogged until they know the dates of battles and the names of leaders. At which point these poor victims of knowledge become hopelessly unhinged---and clueless!


“Americans’ historical apathy is also an indictment of the way history is taught in grades K-12, according to a professor who studies and teaches historical instruction....[She] says that teaching history by rote – that is, by having students memorize historical dates and then testing them on how well they can regurgitate that data on a test – is a pedagogical method guaranteed to get students to tune out and add to our collective civic and historical cluelessness.”

This timeless drivel goes on for pages. “While it’s important to know facts and dates, the professor believes history teachers should challenge students, especially high school students, to think like historians...Everybody thinks of history as being really boring – and it is, if it’s solely the recitation and recalling of facts,” the professor said. “The concern is always, ‘Our kids don’t know history!’ But if we’re just talking about the recall of facts and dates, that’s not solely what you want to know about history.”

“We need to start thinking differently about our students’ abilities,” she said. “They can think critically and engage in historical inquiry if they’re actually given the opportunity. Instead, we make them learn facts and test them on their ability to regurgitate them at the end of the week. I think that’s really insulting to them.”

Thinking like a historian, according to the professor, entails studying primary source documents, thinking about the historical context, weighing the evidence and then making an argument – “something all high school students are capable of doing,” she said. “That helps students develop a historical consciousness, which is the ability to ask why a particular historical narrative or a historical concept is advanced or not.”
 
"Teaching students to look at history with a critical eye also helps students see past the jingoism than sometimes passes for history in classrooms. History is used as a way to instill nationalism and patriotism and commitment to a country, and it particularly becomes strong when there’s a threat against the nation, like in the United States after Sept. 11. But that often blinds everyone to unsavory historical events that have happened in the past. That’s why it’s important to foster a healthy bit of critical skepticism in students instead of training a generation of expert test-takers.”

A critical eye, huh? Think like an historian, huh? Why is everything the professor teaches designed to clone more left-wing teachers exactly like herself? Is there a shortage of these people? Repeating cliches but pretending to be some sort of idealized scholar, well, isn't that called pretension? Seems to me an historian should have more self-awareness. Does she really wish her students to know historical context and weigh the evidence? She could have them read this article.

TRAIN THE BRAIN, FIND THE MIND

The thesis throughout this article is that the Education Establishment was anti-knowledge and adopted an anti-memory rhetoric merely as a means to that end. In the process, they had to pretend that memory itself was an irrelevancy, a waste of time and energy, a silly thing. Really? Probably they didn’t even believe this nonsense themselves.

Suppose I say to you: “I can never remember your name, but I always forget your face.” I don’t really know you, do I?

Education and learning--how can we speak seriously about these two projects unless we are talking about kids knowing stuff? Educators have tangled themselves in the silliest of sophistries: they want to pretend to be devoted to education even as they exclude all the essence. Here you start to see why so much of modern education ends up being a charade, a game of make-believe.

Keep the kids busy, keep the kids ignorant--that’s the sum of this noxious game.


Let’s back up and start over. Let’s assume we actually want students to learn and be educated. Then you immediately become engaged in a wholly different task, which is to teach them how to arrange, prioritize, master, and retain information.

The Greeks and Romans were keen students of memory, as a part of learning language, making speeches, being a leader, influencing events. If you have no memory, you have no knowledge and no control--that was their common-sense take, as it would be anyone’s. Memory is a survival skill; amnesia makes survival nearly impossible. 

It seems to me, no matter whether you have a good memory or a bad memory, there is benefit in using it. Perhaps “use it or lose it” applies to memory as much as to muscles.  I’m not thinking of stunts such as knowing pi to 100 places. I’m thinking chiefly of orgnizational skills, processing skills, relating skills. Memory is instrumental in all of these.

Let’s say you see a Corvette for the first time. A lot of things happen in this process. You get to know what a Corvette is, but also what it isn’t. Not a Jag, not a Lamborghini. The information arranges around various axes: American versus foreign, sports versus practical, fast versus slow, something you would like to drive versus something you wouldn’t want to drive. Remembering this flood of activity speeds up the next similar experience. You become an expert, a sophisticate, a connoisseur. An amnesiac doesn’t remember the previous cars. There is no texture, no context. One’s experience always remains shallow. American education seems to think that’s a sensible approach to life.

I would suspect that in order to memorize things efficiently, you first have to organize them in their most logical way. That in itself is a tremendous achievement for young children. If they can see that three items on a list have a common denominator, that’s a valuable insight. Indeed, that is the beginning of science. If they can find connections, similarities, mnemonic hooks, color codes, or any other gimmick so there’s a pattern as opposed to randomness, that’s a victory.
 
Personally, I have always found that solving memory-problems to be one of the most satisfying things. In the seventh grade I worked out a way to remember the difference between “stalagmite” and “stalactite.” Many years later I found that my brother had worked out a different method for himself. I can still remember the afternoon, probably about the ninth grade, when I was staring at the words “stationery” and “stationary” and asking what kind of insanity allows two such similar words to be in a language; this is idiotic; I won’t put up with it; I’ve got to find the perfect mnemonic solution. A minute later I had it. The E in stationery could stand for envelope, the kind that contains a letter. Meanwhile, the second A in stationary resembles a pyramid, the most stable and stationary of objects. I never confused these words again, not for a second.

I can also remember the delightful afternoon when I read an article on the Internet about students in the third or fourth grade in the UK. They had to design mnemonic devices to help them remember the planets, in order from the sun. The thought of all these little kids studying the names of the planets, the first letters, and trying to think of clever phrases that would contain the letters. Well, that’s my idea of what education ought to be. I just hope it happens somewhere in this country. In solving the mnemonic, the kids will find they can easily remember the names of the planets. In a way, the whole thing is a trick, but a heavenly trick. Please, teachers, let’s get busy.

The point is twofold: knowing information is good in itself; and organizing information so you can remember it is a valuable intellectual exercise.

The Smithsonian Magazine recently carried a fascinating article about a Naval Academy plebe who, when challenged, had to rattle off all the items on the lunch menu. “Tater tots,” he snapped, “luncheon meats, Swiss cheese, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, submarine rolls, macaroon cookies, iced tea with lemon wedges, milk...”

His superior asked, “Did I hear salami, Mr. Holcomb?”

I was instantly fascinated by this anecdote, which occurred in 1979. I called the US Naval Academy to find out if this policy had continued and if there was research to justify it. The PR people I spoke with seemed confused by my interest; perhaps I was the typical leftist trying to make the Academy look bad. I was able to ascertain two things: this plebe wasn’t remembering what he ate at lunch; he was responsible for knowing all the printed menus that appeared each day. Second, the justification was informal and historical. The Navy had found that when ships are at sea, and the waves are hitting the gunwales, it’s important that officers have a steely grasp of the facts. In short, an organized memory saves lives and wins battles. What else do you need to know?

Here is a headline I found on the Internet: “Rote Memorization Drills Improve Memory Skills in Older Patients.”

The story continued: Six weeks of intensive rote memorization exercises led to improved verbal and episodic memory skills for older patients, researchers reported. "We asked them to memorize 500 words--an article or a poem--every week," Dr. Roche said. At the end of each week the participants were tested to assess their success at the memorization task. Dr. Roche said the participants were given a selection of articles and poems each week or they could choose their own selection. "A newspaper article about the life of Bob Hope was one of the most popular selections.” Dr. Roche said that only one of the two groups--the patients who were initially randomized to the rote memorization regimen--achieved good compliance with the memory tasks.

Who is surprised? The best way to keep senility at bay is to make the brain do new things. I have read similar reports in WIRED and health magazines.

IN CONCLUSION
The thing you have to keep reminding yourself of is that the Education Establishment in this country doesn’t know anything more about memory than the average mushroom knows. The policies were never about memory. The intent was to foreclose the possibility of knowledge; to stop people from remembering anything. That was the shamefully stupid--one can as well say suicidal--policy promoted by people who disliked American culture and civilization, and wished their fellow citizens to be empty-headed and pliable.

CODA
Michael Knox Beran, writing in the City Journal, neatly stated the main points:

In Defense of Memorization: If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything. Even highly educated people in their thirties and forties are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that kids in public schools from Boston to San Francisco committed poems like Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to memory. They declaimed passages from Shakespeare and Wordsworth, the Psalms and the Declaration of Independence. Even in the earliest grades they got by heart snippets of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “Abou Ben Adhem.” By 1970, however, this tradition was largely dead.

Should we care? Aren’t exercises in memorizing and reciting poetry and passages of prose an archaic curiosity, without educative value?

That too-common view is sadly wrong. Kids need both the poetry and the memorization. As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children’s minds and hearts.

 

SEE RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE:

26: HOW TO TEACH HISTORY, ETC.

43: AMERICAN BASIC CURRICULM

47: TEACH ONE FACT EACH DAY

(especially, see Addendum II,

which could just as well be here)

 

 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009