A common practice of any serious scholar since time immemorial, rote learning receives an undeservingly bad rap in the postmodern world.
Children no longer memorize:
the eight parts of speech
lists of prepositions
lists of adverbs or adjectives
Memorizing math facts is somewhat passé in favor of conceptual learning, and historical dates and geographical markers are long neglected.
And what about memorizing character traits to remind oneself to behave well? Has that taken a hit as well?
You bet it has!
Children used to memorize the different virtues and the different vices when young, but not anymore. In fact, in the modern world the virtues and vices have been inverted.
Getting angry at the slightest injustice is hailed as your “right” and thinking of yourself first regardless of other people’s needs now puts you amongst the enlightened members of pop psychology.
In earlier times, putting your needs above others was simply being selfish.
But I digress.
Some people claim that rote learning is memorizing without comprehension, and therefore, useless. But is it? The original meaning of “rote,” which comes from Middle English, meant “repetition.”
When you commit things to memory you do it by repeating them over and over again until the long-term memory invites them in. And even after that, you need to review them now and then so they don’t get booted.
There’s another term that used to be more popular; in fact, it was the term that was always used before rote learning was condemned to archaic pedagogical practices. The term is “learn by heart.”
The once common idiom derives from Ancient Greece because the Ancient Greeks and everyone since then, until modern times, believed that the intelligence and memory were housed in the heart, hence the idiom.
But what does it mean to learn something by heart?
It means we make it a part of ourselves. It’s no longer a thing outside of us; it’s now a thing within us. It’s now in our hearts.
Mauritania is one of the few countries left where scholars still learn by heart entire books on a variety of subjects including grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
We aren’t talking about a few math facts or parts of speech; we are talking about entire books! Until a particular book is studied, until the contents live on a shelf in the student’s heart, a Mauritanian is not considered an expert of his subject.
How’s that for raising the standards of education?!
Furthermore, Mauritanians are known for the brilliance of their memories because the simple act of memorizing will develop your memory. Any above-average intelligent person will have a strong memory.
And they say rote learning is bad!
Some highly intelligent people might be absent-minded, but weak memories they do not have.
Your children need to develop their memories! You want your children to commit to memory material that will become useful to them later.
Whether you want to split hairs about the difference between rote learning and learning by heart, I’d like you to consider this: it’s easy to condemn rote learning as passé, but it isn’t easy to condemn learning by heart.
As Mr. Gwynne said, learning by heart speaks to the soul while rote learning speaks to a piece of machinery of which we are not.
And this is also why the war on grammar has to be fought. The choice of words we make does matter so, from now on, I’ll drop the “rote” part and stick to the “heart” part, as Mr. Gwynne reminds us to do in his latest book, Gwynne’s Kings and Queens: The Indispensable History of England and Her Monarchs, and a good reminder it is.
And now you know why I agree with Mr. Gwynne that “rote” learning is a bad word.
But the concept is not bad. While learning for understanding and truth is crucial, and is the very point to learning, learning by heart has its role too. We don’t need to forsake the practice of learning by heart in favor of understanding. They are not mutually exclusive ideas. On the contrary, learning by heart supports a thorough understanding of its subject.
We can do both and we should do both.
Take learning a foreign language as an example. One of the arguments against the practice of learning by heart is that you don’t learn a foreign language by memorizing it’s parts, you learn it by speaking the language.
While this is certainly true, the objection makes a greater argument for learning a language while living in the country where the language is spoken rather than an argument against memorizing the parts that make up the language.
Speaking a language does not make you literate in a language. It just makes you able to converse in the colloquial tongue. To have an intelligent understanding of any language you need to have a thorough understanding of its grammatical structure.
All Americans grow up speaking English, but the number of Americans who can read and write intelligently, persuasively, and eloquently is dwindling as I write.
Some researchers like Jo Boaler of Stanford University argue that math facts shouldn’t be memorized when children are young and the focus instead should be on conceptual learning.
Jo Boaler’s position, with all due respect, teaches us only one thing where rote learning is concerned: we should listen to researchers less and to our common sense more.
Is math not the most precise of subjects? And if you understand a particular math concept perfectly but make an error in the addition or multiplication part of the problem, is not your answer wrong?
How much greater, then, are your chances of finding the correct answer when you have your math facts at your fingertips!
Try studying Latin. If you study Latin using Mr. Gwynne’s traditional method, you will find yourself memorizing noun declensions in all the various cases and verb conjugations in all the various forms before you learn how to intelligibly translate a sentence from English into Latin.
Yet, when it comes time to construct your first sentence, and every sentence afterward, how much easier it becomes when you’ve committed the declensions and the conjugations to memory!
Just ask Mr. Gwynne if you doubt me.
When you ask a child to memorize a poem, you are asking the child to learn the poem by heart so the poem becomes a part of the child.
In memorizing the poem, whether he fully understands it or not, the language will show up when the child–and later the adult–speaks or writes, and it will only make him that much better when he does. As he grows older, he’ll slowly begin to grasp the meanings until one day the poem has not only been learned by heart, but the heart has understood the poem.
Committing worthwhile material to memory, again, will only expand your child’s memory. The more material your children commit to memory, the more the memory develops, and the easier it becomes to memorize more and more and more.
And don’t forget that a strong memory is a key component of a strong intellect!
Let me ask you a question: with Alzheimer’s and early onset dementia on the rise, does it not behoove us to do what we can to protect our memories? And don’t we keep our memories functional by using them?
Children love to memorize anything whether it makes sense to them or not. It’s what Dorothy Sayers labeled the “Poll-Parrot” stage of learning. They’re designed this way because it’s what they need.
Learning everything they can learn by heart is good for them. And it might even protect them against dementia when they’re older!
Why not take advantage of their natural inclination and let them memorize as many facts and poems as they can?
Why not let their hearts go to work.