Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 892:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 892.

Today, let's memorize multiplication tables. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

After WW-II we began -- systematically -- to downplay memorization. The public schools said students won't understand anything if they only memorize. We want them to learn concepts, not just facts. For a generation, memory fell out of fashion.

All that used to suit me fine. But looking closely at invention, and at the nature of concepts, has changed my mind. Now I tell students, "Memorize! Memorize everything in sight -- batting averages, poetry, names, dates -- lyrics and melodies."

Another movement also gained momentum after WW-II -- Montessori education for children. Maria Montessori believed that creativity is a matter of association. She said:

What we call [creativity] is in reality a composition -- a construction raised on material of the mind, which must be collected by the senses. We are unable to "imagine" things that don't actually present themselves to our senses.

Montessori heaped sense data on children -- games, apparatus, things, experience. She steered them away from anything smacking of fantasy. She didn't speak the forbidden word, memorization -- but she certainly gave her students much to remember.

Now, I've said before that creativity is recognition. It's recognizing an idea that turns up in an unexpected context. Montessori's creative construction may be based on sense data, but it's ultimately built from material of the mind.

We don't just experience the world around us. We also experience our own knowledge -- of numbers, dates, faces of friends, melody, and poetry. Invention is what occurs when we connect data from two unrelated pages of our mind. To do that, we have to make a habit of conscious recollection.

Why were Leonardo, Newton, and Franklin so clever? They all had voracious appetites for knowledge, but they also had a prodigious habit of retaining knowledge. They had huge contexts of remembered fact to connect and expand their ideas.

Now memory's under a new threat. Computers detach memory from our minds. Children once memorized long Bible passages; now computers can instantly find any word in the Bible. Now word processors remember how to spell for us. We once knew how to remember numbers while we did arithmetic in our heads. Now, why should we remember numbers, words, or anything else?

The effect is palpable in our classes. Smart students are losing the habits that support memory. They have more and more trouble making the connections that constitute understanding.

Memorization is drudgery only until we forge the habit of association -- of recognition. That's why, when students ask me, "Will I have to remember formulas in this course? Will I have to remember dates?" I smile and say, "Oh yes, indeed, you will."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For more on memorization, see Episodes 909 and 1244.
As our private memory is not a merely passive retention of sensations, so in literature the critical spirit is at work as a conscious energy of selection.

Shelbourne Essays
Paul Elmer Moore

While Franklin's quiet memory climbs to Heaven,
Calming the lightning which he thence had riven,
Or drawing from the no less kindled earth
Freedom and peace to that which boasts his birth;

The Age of Bronze
Lord Byron

There is always room for beauty: memory
A myriad lovely blossoms may enclose,
But, whatsoe'er hath been, there still must be
Room for another rose

The Poetry of the Earth
Florence Earle Coates

Thus aged men, full loth and slow,
The vanities of life forego,
And count their youthful follies o'er
Till Memory lends her light no more.

Rokeby, Canto IV
Sir Walter Scott

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode