Why is Memory Work Necessary?

This article could be summed up thus: memory work=knowledge. If you don’t have knowledge, you don’t have an education. There. Article over.

Okay, seriously, memory work is the essence of education, without memory work, and yes, I mean rote memorization, you have no education. The only way to know something is to have it memorized. If it’s not memorized, it is not known.

Case in point, if I have to look at my phone to find out my parents’ phone number, can I say I know it? If I have to use a calculator to figure out what 12×11 is, do I know it? If I have to look up on Wikipedia or Google who the 5th president of the United States was, do I know it? (I do know my parents’ number and 12×11. I don’t know the 5th president yet, but we are studying presidents this year.)

I mentioned previously how I went to public school all twelve grades, took advanced math and science classes, and graduated with a 3.9 GPA. I was also in the honors society in college, on the dean’s list, inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and completed 120 credits in nursing and accounting with a 3.71 GPA (but do not have a degree because I switched majors and never finished).

After all that, by the time I started schooling my children, I remembered pretty much nothing about history, government, economics, science, or even (my favorite subject) math save the personal pronouns list I learned in eighth grade and the Rainbow song I learned in kindergarten.

Why? It’s simple, because I never learned anything through rote memorization: that, according to modern educators, is the supposedly boring and out-dated educational technique of bygone ages, the bygone ages remember, from Why Latin & Greek, that produced some of the greatest minds and leaders in all of history. … I’ll let that sink in before we move on.

I actually had a longing to homeschool before I even had children, so, naturally, I wanted to learn everything I could about it since I knew no one who homeschooled. I read articles, blogs, and books trying to learn as much as I could to give my children the best education, but the more I read, the more I also learned about the problems with public school and why others homeschool. It turns out that the mistake in education (almost) boils down to one idea that was removed in the early-mid 1900s and that is rote memorization.

As found on Wikipedia, for example: “The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics stated: 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.”

Now I may be wrong here (I have no doubts, but I leave the possibility open), but how do we think people like Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, etc. learned mathematics, if not by the “mere memorization,” “following procedures,” and “computational tedium” which is being degraded by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics?!

How exactly does this relate to the classics?

Mnemosyne, Mother of the muses, was the goddess of memory. She is associated with the rote memorization that was necessary to preserve the myths and histories of the ancient Greeks before the invention of writing. So “Memory is the mother of the muses,” those muses being the nine Greek goddesses who inspired the literature, science, and arts of the Ancient Greeks, and are considered the source of that knowledge (Wikipedia). Or, to cheekily put it another way, memory is the source of all knowledge.

Now, there is an English word that looks like Mnemosyne, and that is mnemonic. A mnemonic device is an aid for remembering something (like FANBOYS for the coordinating conjunctions, FACE for the spaces on the treble clef, Every good boy does fine for the lines on the treble clef, My mother just served us nine pizzas for the planet order—back when Pluto was still considered one of the nine, etc.).

Mnemosyne and mnemonic come from mnemon which means “mindful” in Greek. But the problem with mnemonic devices is that they add an extra step (or five) to the memory, making it clumsily recalled.

For example, if I don’t have my notes memorized and I see a note is on the middle line of the treble clef, in order to play it, I had to 1. see whether my note is on a line or space, 2. count up to that line it happens to be on, 3. remember the saying for lines on the treble clef (Every good boy does fine), 4. think about which word is third, boy, 5. think about what letter it starts with, B, and then 6. find B on the piano! Now how did that help me to play a song with a B above middle C?! Hint: it didn’t. If I want to play the piano, I have to do the “difficult” work of memorizing my notes. If I don’t do that, I won’t be playing the piano. Mnemonics are awkward; don’t use them.

So how do you utilize rote memorization?

It is really easy. It is so easy, you might laugh. In order to utilize rote memorization, you just repeat your exposure to the thing you want to memorize. Repetition = memorization, you don’t even have to try. It is the brain’s reaction to multiple exposures and it truly is effortless. Everyone has the capacity for memorization, even those with special needs, and of course geniuses, but most importantly, the average child and adult, too.

The modern elementary school emphasis is on fun over drudgery, but rote memorization is not hard and does not have to be dull. There are plenty of games you can play to work on a child’s memory, but I find it necessary to note, my children do not despise just going through flashcards, because I have given them no reason to despise them, and every reason to love them. They know that running through flashcards makes school fun, because then they remember everything and have such an easy time doing assignments and tests, and learning new things that build upon previous material. As Aristotle says, we like what we’re good at.

Also, the modern college emphasis is on cramming. Now cramming for tests does lead to a kind of memorization, but it is not long-term memory storage. It only utilizes the short-term memory and is why all of us think we learned something in school, when we really learned nothing at all. We memorized material in order to take a test and never reviewed that material again, thereby causing it to leave our short-term memory and be lost forever, instead of moving to long-term memory storage.

I have learned more with my children in these few years of classically educating them at home then I did in my own sixteen years of “education”. Because I know the material, I can recall what a verb is, what the brightest star in the sky is and where to find it, all the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts 0-12 (better than when it was my favorite subject all the way through calculus and statistics!), even approximately what year Rome was founded and when it fell, and so much more. And best of all, I didn’t even try to learn! It just happened as I was teaching my children. That is what rote memorization is: learning through repetition.

Even better, the more your brain is exercised to memorize, the less exposure it will take to memorize new material. I find my twelve year old sons’ ability to memorize incredible, in the very sense of the word—not able to be believed. He can remember things after hearing or reading them only one time, because from his very first years, we have been memorizing poems, songs, and nursery rhymes to math facts, the catechism, and Greek myths, to history and Latin and Greek vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions.

This is part of the “Core Four”, a series of four articles written to explain the scope and content of this website, why it is called Fundamentally Classical, and why you should homeschool your children classically.

  1. What is Education?
  2. What is Classical Education?
  3. Why Study Latin and Greek?
  4. Why is Memory Work Necessary? (You’re here!)

Does you child remember what they learned last week? What about last year? How much information do you take in in any given day? Do you remember it all? Do you remember anything? Do you want to change that? Then try a Fundamentally Classical education.

4 responses to “Why is Memory Work Necessary?”

  1. […] First, as we already mentioned, public school is all about teaching for the test. They’ve got to get the kids to pass the test, so only important teat material is covered in the classroom. And because funding is based on how well the children do on the test, they omit all other material, considered a time-waster. Also, the teaching ideology is mostly a one-and-done approach: cover the material in the lesson, minimize review and never go back to it once you’ve taken the test. I will cover why this is so horrible in my upcoming article on memorization. […]


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