Memorization Matters

When I was young I and others I knew used to deride “memorization tests.” In a world where being able to learn facts is easier and faster than it’s ever been, it was hard to imagine why being able to recite trivia for a test would ever be useful. And since structured education is an abysmal way to learn in general, it took me a while to distinguish the poor pedagogy from the value of actually having memorized knowledge of things, even in the Information Age:

1) Synthesizing existing knowledge is usually necessary to gain new insights about the world. It seems obvious when stated clearly, but pay attention to how often people feel like they have new or interesting ideas, only to discover that they’ve already been had by others or are invalidated by some facts they didn’t know. Knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you have, the more likely you are to generate more.

2) Memorized information saves time, the value of which is often underestimated. People spend a lot of time trying to remember things, arguing about what facts are true (often for inane pop-culture info), and even a 10 second google search adds up if you do it enough, and can break flow of thought and productivity. Personally, I spend hours every week researching stuff for my story that someone with more in-depth physics, history, biochemistry, etc education would just know and be able to utilize to write.

3) Having a large body of true knowledge is VITAL for good information hygiene. Lack of knowledge is a big part of what makes up “gullibility.” When you hear an assertion about reality, your mind often automatically feels something, whether it’s skepticism, plausibility, confidence, or just uncertainty, that weird “back and forth” feeling as your brain offers up arguments or data or comparisons for and against.

The more true facts you actually know, the better calibrated your skepticism of false claims will be, and the more likely you are to actually investigate things that are presented as true when you think they’re not, or presented as false when you think they’re true.

To be clear, when I talk about memorized facts, I mostly am referring to actual understanding, not just being able to say the right combination of noises by rote. Memorizing a list of invention names doesn’t help you create new inventions, being able to recite atoms doesn’t help you understand each one’s properties, and new information would just get absorbed if you don’t understand what you’ve memorized enough for there to be some interaction with it. But once in a while even basic memorized trivia like names and dates are valuable for their own sake too.

I don’t mean to counterswing into an opposite extreme. Simple facts are no substitution for critical thinking or creativity, and knowing how to gather good information is also a very important skill. But the knowledge you have stored is what informs your thoughts day to day, and often affects whether you will know to start gathering more when faced with new info of dubious quality.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify me by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter. Thank you!