A Defense of Rote Memorization

A few days after all the Memory Master testing was complete, it was Sunday morning, and the Pastor mentioned the countries in the Bible passage we were reading in church. 

He said something like, "If you are familiar with the Mediterranean..." 

Adele's eyes lit up and twinkled as she looked and me and we shared a moment of recognition. 

She had grown very familiar with the Mediterranean from reviewing geography facts for Memory Masters testing. 

On Wednesday, she ran into the kitchen, breathless. 

She's reading Anne of Green Gables right now. 

"Mom! This book is set in Nova Scotia! Nova Scotia! I know where that is!" she panted. 

She laughed in delight, and I laughed, too. 

She put hundreds of facts to memory and those facts keep coming to life for her. 

But there are leading homeschool voices who continually condemn the rote memorization of hundreds of facts, and they do so earnestly.

But I earnestly have to disagree with them and speak as I actually find after almost ten years of using rote memorization in our homeschool.  

This is not a complete and total Grandgrind situation. 

And that is never the case where the Holy Spirit is involved. 

Dead, dry facts we take real trouble to actually memorize never stay dead or dry or merely fact for long. 

Our healthy, active, imaginative minds go to work on the material we give them, making connections with what we've merely memorized for the moment and what we already know and understand and love. 

What works with poems, Psalms, hymns, and stories, also works with mere facts. 

By memorizing these, we give our minds a term or a phrase or a statement or a series of statements or images or symbols to hold onto. 

Then our minds, naturally, go to work upon this content from all sides. 

Understanding comes gradually usually, but sometime it comes all at once. 

Once understanding comes love grows exponentially. 

Do you know how many times understanding will flood my mind as I stand at the kitchen sink washing dishes, because my mind has made a connection about an abstract math formula stored inside my head?

I memorize formulas by rote with my kids. 

And this is just as dreadful and awful as it sounds... but only at first.  

Experience keeps demonstrating that memorizing a fact means I can think about it at leisure, because I carry it with me everywhere, because it is stored in my mind. 

I can consider the relationships of variables in a formula and even rearrange the variables... 

And understanding comes gradually sometimes, but sometimes all at once! 

And understanding is followed by wonder, awe, and worship. 

And I find that I begin to truly love math. 

This may actually be because now that I have memorized enough math, I can study math artifacts in my mind at my leisure.  

Putting dry, dead facts into an already living, active mind does not snuff out a mind's fire. 

On the contrary, I find it is more like strategically throwing aged wood on a fire already burning.

It only burns hotter and brighter!  

The person who memorizes hundreds of facts in every subject and grows in constant understanding of those facts can care about even more in the end of their education than they ever would otherwise. 

Why can't a faculty of memorization be built deliberately? 

Why can't human beings strategically furnish their minds with all manner of beautiful artifacts, not just Scripture or poetry, but also history dates and timelines?

My oldest daughter loves translating Virgil, but she could not have gotten to the point of so much love of Latin without actually memorizing those meaningless (at first) noun endings. 

She hated Latin because of all the drilling, all that dry, boring, tedious memorization of facts.  

She was exactly like CS Lewis's schoolboy learning Greek grammar in The Weight of Glory.

She hated it at first and only worked because she was compelled to do so. 

But, slowly, joy crept in on the "mere drudgery" of her Latin studies, and just as Lewis describes, "poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience." 

Now I do not have to make her study Latin. 

She plans her own translation projects, builds her own language, makes her own plans to learn Greek. 

Adults know from experience that reading the same poem every morning for a month may seem, at first, routine, rote, meaningless, and they read the poem on purpose to memorize it. 

They know that gradually or even in a flash, the content will come alive for them. 

A phrase jumps out or comes to them as they pray or as they speak with a friend or as they behold a landscape. 

It is the same with hundreds of mere facts. 

No facts stay lifeless long in this world where the Holy Spirit is constantly at work. 

God breaths Spirit into the form of the words or symbols and the words, even the words of merest fact, come alive and we behold God's glory!   


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