Memorization is Not Education

We’re in the middle of summer, but I’ve been thinking about school. I attended public school for 12 years. I received an acceptable education and had both excellent and poor teachers. I suspect I owe my writing skills to a string of above-average English teachers. However, except for my math and science classes (hated geometry, actually like algebra), expectations were set so low that I easily fulfilled assignments and barely remember studying for tests. School was easy, but it was boring.

During the six hours or so of classroom time, I was usually bored for five. The focus was on getting the majority through the subjects, not challenging the minority. For all the current arguments over testing and failing schools, one solution that fails to gain traction is demanding more of students, teachers, and schools. And I’m not talking about higher test scores. Anyone with half a brain can be taught memorization techniques, but do we really want to define memorization as learning?

Over on Escape from Cubicle Nation, Pam Slim brought to light the recent decision in Arizona to kill an international studies program. I’m flabbergasted by the utter ignorance of legislators who defend their decision by suggesting:

…the bill was un-American and part of a slippery slope to a U.N. takeover and the end of U.S. sovereignty.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, would have put three K-12 schools in the northern, central and southern parts of the state, where kids would begin a second language in kindergarten, and set up new international programs at seven high schools. Big business and universities pledged to partner with the schools. (link)

A U.N. takeover? The U.N. can barely run itself let alone take over American schools. But that’s not what Senator Ron Gould believes:

“There’s a lot of us here who are not internationalists. These schools actually have kind of a United Nations flavor to them, and we’re actually into educating Americans into Americanism, not internationalism.” (link)

But here’s my favorite excerpt:

Sen. Karen Johnson, a Mesa Republican and chairwoman of the K-12 Education Committee, never let the proposal out of committee. Johnson instead brought in a professor from Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minn., to educate lawmakers on the dangers of a popular international studies program, the International Baccalaureate. The 37-year-old high school program offers rigorous courses and diploma programs in schools worldwide, including 759 in the United States and 12 in Arizona. Its goals are intercultural understanding, community service and preparation for university work.

“The International Baccalaureate is un-American,” Allen Quist, who served in the Minnesota Legislature in the 1980s and ran for Minnesota governor as a Republican in 1994, said in a phone interview. He said that International Baccalaureate’s links to the United Nations are disturbing and that its sense of right and wrong is ambiguous.

It teaches students to see the American system of government as one of many, not as the only one that protects universal and God-given rights to property, to bear arms and free speech, Quist said. (link)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the American system of government one of many that offers protection for individual rights? Yes, you may quibble of the level of protection, but do the British, the French, the Germans, the Italians, hell, most people living in democratic countries, enjoy a certain level of individual rights?

The attitude that adopting anything not birthed in America as un-American is fascinating given the roots of our democracy in Greece. You don’t have to teach one perspective to instill a sense of patriotism for a country. You want a populace that actually understands the role of its nation on the international level.

We are no longer separated by oceans. In less than a day, we can travel to areas so distant that they took months to reach in previous centuries. The Arizona legislators and others who share their views have purposefully turned their heads against the reality facing today’s modern schoolchildren.

Fine. You didn’t like the bill. It smacked too much of internationalism. Great. Figure out an alternative. Be bold. Find a way to show children about the world they live in and will one day run. Don’t settle for the status quo or kid yourselves that your children will succeed if they grow up only learning about America and American history.

The world is a giant puzzle, and America is only one, albeit large, piece of the puzzle. What’s going to happen in 50 years if the business world decides its more convenient to conduct its affairs in Mandarin to adequately meet the needs of over a billion customers in China? Ignoring reality doesn’t make it go away. Consequences, both good and bad follow every action. I hope those elected officials in Arizona are still alive when they find out how wrong they were.



4 Responses to “Memorization is Not Education”

  1. June 21, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    I don’t define education as memorization however I believe it is a component of education. How can you synthesize and evaluate without facts? Memorization helps- big time!

  2. 2 Britt
    June 21, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    I agree that memorization can be a help, especially as you learn a new subject. My issue is with those who would make it the solution, the end goal, without addressing the issue of how to apply that knowledge.

  3. June 21, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    are you sure we’re not living in some wacky warp world? the legislators comments are for REAL? what i would have done to learn another language (beyond music) in kindergarten. I was “lucky” in that french/spanish was offered to 7th graders for the first time when I was one. oh i’m going to have to stop thinking about this because i’m not sure if i can spend the night in the country if i continue to ponder this. I discovered the IB my first year of uni and I screamed with frustration that I had known nothing about it earlier.

    much of my public edu was memorization, not all. it has good things and bad. my biggest fight was with a global studies teacher who wanted us to practically memorize the definitions in the textbook. No application of the words, no absorbing of meaning. I detested this man greatly and was pleased to ace his tests and shove it back in his face. [He was a good teacher for those that found the subject mildly challenging] My world history courses left much to be desired i recall that much as I pour over the Economist and look at the maps and wonder why I know nothing of the history of these areas … anyway, i had instructors both good and bad. and some classes where i was challenged and a few not. For the nots my school tried hard to challenge me and those who would have been bored. i give them a lot of credit.

    my poor writing is due to a state english test. i won’t start.

    every day i see the effects of rote memorization and the inability to apply knowledge. i scare some coworkers because of how i can apply things i learned in situation A to B. I honestly think that it can be worse in some uni settings than from high school.. my husband and I have horror stories of people we’ve interviewed from “good schools” and/or with “good GPAs” .. and can’t answer our basic questions on the subjects.

    Thank you for writing on this!

  4. 4 Britt
    June 21, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    I wish I were kidding. I suspect this situation is just one example of the kind of thinking that will allow countries like China and India to, if not completely pull ahead, aggressively compete with the U.S. in the coming years.
    Yes, some pretty amazing events took place in America, but as a country it hasn’t even hit the 250-year mark. Prior to America’s creation some other pretty amazing things were happening in the world. It makes me sad for the kids who may not find out about them because they didn’t happen in America. As a side note, how many geniuses never finished school and attended or graduated from college? There’s a reason why they left the school system and struck out on their own. It’s a lesson we’ve ignored for decades.

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