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