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Five Reasons That Memory Matters

The cure for a generation of lazy minds.

In ancient times, the ability to memorize was a prized skill. Whole cultures were passed down through the centuries by those who remembered the stories, legends, history, and taboos and laws. The advent of the printing press launched a new era of “looking things up.” Today, the internet and its search engines may seem to be making memorization irrelevant in the modern world. What we don’t remember, we think we can always look up.

Schools have generally abandoned requiring students to memorize poems, famous speeches, multiplication tables, and all sorts of academic material that used to be ingrained in the curriculum. A growing disdain for memorization emerged among the other intellectually damaging effects of post-modernism. Now, the emphasis in education is on new math, critical thinking, inquiry learning, “hands-on” activity, and the like.

There is nothing wrong with these new emphases, except that they come at the expense of children learning the mental discipline of memorization. Teachers and professors I know agree with me that today’s schoolchildren, in general, are more mentally lazy than those in the past. The one inarguable effect of honing memorization skills is that the mentally lazy can’t succeed at it.

Here are five reasons that we should all strive to improve our ability to remember:

1. Memorization is discipline for the mind—much needed in an age when so many minds are lazy, distracted, have little to think about, or think sloppily. Memorization helps train the mind to focus and be industrious.

2. No, you can’t always “Google it.” Sometimes you don’t have access to the internet. Not everything of importance is on the web (and a great deal of irrelevant trash will accompany any search). Nor is looking up material helpful under such situations as when you learn to use a foreign language, must write or speak extemporaneously, or wish to be an expert.

3. Memorization creates the repertoire of what we think about. Nobody can think in a vacuum of information. To be an expert in any field requires knowledge that you already have.

4. We think with the ideas held in working memory, which can only be accessed at high speed from the brain’s stored memory. Understanding is nourished by the information you hold in working memory as you think. Without such knowledge, we have a mind full of mush.

5. The exercise of the memory develops learning and memory schema that promote improved ability to learn. The more you remember, the more you can learn.

History documents that great minds are filled with knowledge. Jesus had to know scripture in order to show Pharisees what was wrong with their practice of it. Picasso had to know how to paint before he decided what to paint. Einstein had to know the physics literature of his day before he could realize its errors. Warren Buffett makes tons of money because he knows what he is doing.

If you want real educational reform, go back to the fundamentals that worked in the past. What we are doing in education today is not working!

And what are the fundamentals of developing learning and memory skills? Follow this blog and peruse its archives. Check out my books (Better Grades, Less Effort, and Memory Power 101).

More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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