memorisation in an age of Google

FT columnist Christopher Caldwell is always worth reading, and this week’s column is no exception. Mr Caldwell defends – with a critical eye – the call of Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, for more tests of rote learning in UK schools. Here is a short excerpt:

“Memorisation” used to be almost a synonym for “culture”. Hindus commit sutras to memory. A Muslim who knows the Koran by heart is esteemed as a hafiz. A bar mitzvah must read the Hebrew scriptures. Christian teenagers across the US will meet in Louisville, Kentucky in May for the Bible Bowl, at which they will compete on their verbatim recall of the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps rote learning is despised because the authority it propped up is held in low esteem by today’s figures of authority. Memory is no longer a way to convey a society’s sacred heritage. It is a party trick. The internet has only multiplied our excuses for doing without it. In an age of Google and Wikipedia, memorisation seems a waste of time.

It is not. When Mr Gove says that education “can only come from the initial submission of the student’s mind to the body of knowledge contained within specific subjects”, he has tapped into lost wisdom. And we are wrong to have forgotten that, in education, submission is empowerment. American educators have made inculcating self-esteem a priority. Perhaps that is why US education gets such poor results, because education is at odds with self-esteem. The student is being educated in the first place because society assumes he is somehow deficient. Competition, perhaps cruelly, is meant to spur education by heightening this sense of deficiency. But we don’t think that way any more.

Christopher Caldwell, “It’s right to test learning by heart“, Financial Times, 17 November 2012.

Although I do not agree with Caldwell’s extreme position, he did cause me to reconsider my own views, which is very helpful. Read the entire column (registration required) and form your own opinion.

American journalist Christopher Caldwell (born 1962) is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative opinion magazine.

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