There Is No Thinking without Memorizing

We deploy faddish educational notions such as “critical thinking” to the detriment of our students. What is often derided as “rote-learning” is actually essential to sophisticated analysis. Memorization creates a base of knowledge. We draw upon this foundational knowledge as we engage in more conceptual thinking.
School boy memorizing the lesson in classroom

“With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.” Job 12:12 KJV

In education we are often told that we don’t want to simply teach students facts; we need to teach them “how to think.” My state, South Dakota, is currently debating whether to adopt new standards for K–12 Social Science. I was part of the working group that helped draw up these standards, which focus on learning content over developing skills. These standards would require memorizing such standard American texts as the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

The debate playing out in South Dakota gets at fundamental disagreements about the nature of learning. One of the foremost critiques is that the standards require too much “rote learning” and not enough “thinking skills.” The question is whether these two phenomena, memorization and analysis, are actually at odds. What if the latter requires the former? What if “critical thinking” is not a technique, but a natural outcome of learning content?

Jargon vs. Thinking

The education guild, which opposes the standards we put forth, holds up Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy of Learning as a kind of Ten Commandments or Buddhist Eightfold Path to better education. For Bloom, asking students to “memorize,” “define,” or “explain” promotes lower-order skills, whereas students who are able to “critique,” “design,” or “formulate” have developed higher skills. The complaint is that the standards do not use Bloom’s vocabulary.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, ironically, tends to substitute jargon for actual thinking. As George Orwell reminds us in his justly famous essay on the English language, words can be overused to the extent that the words cease to have any meaning. This is the case with education buzzwords such as “appraise” and “investigate.” As Orwell puts it, “A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.” The banality of educational jargon should give us pause.

What if “critical thinking” is not a technique, but a natural outcome of learning content?


A larger problem with Bloom’s Taxonomy is precisely that it assumes that education imparts skills rather than leading students to knowledge or truth. Like the architect encountered by Gulliver at the Grand Academy of Lagado, it represents an attempt to build a house from the top down. There is literally no foundation. In Gulliver’s third recorded voyage, Swift consistently mocks the notion of “thinking” abstracted from any real knowledge. It is quite difficult to “think for yourself” when you don’t have much to think about.

For example, some years ago I was one of many scholars and teachers who worked with the United States Department of Education to read grant proposals for the Teaching American History program (a program no longer existing). The ultimate goal of the program, naturally, was to increase students’ knowledge of American history. Many of the proposals I read claimed that they weren’t going to settle for teaching mere names and dates. Instead, they were going to teach students how to “think like historians.” A fine goal, to be sure. Still, if at the end of the day we want students to think like historians, at the beginning of the day they must know some history. While history may be more than names and dates, it is at least names and dates. Try thinking like a historian about the American Civil War, for instance, without knowing about the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln–Douglas debates, the various contestants in the 1860 presidential election (especially Abraham Lincoln), Ft. Sumter, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Emancipation Proclamation, battles such as First Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. One could go on, but the point is made. To “think critically” about the American Civil War necessarily entails placing it in the correct half-century (which many students cannot do). Asking students to “question” something they know nothing about will yield success at the same rate as attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.

If at the end of the day we want students to think like historians, at the beginning of the day they must know some history. While history may be more than names and dates, it is at least names and dates.


Critical Thinking

Still, especially when attempting to defend the liberal arts, educators often fall into educational lingo. As classics professor Eric Adler notes in his fine book on the history of the Classics in American higher education, the liberal arts and humanities are often defended as promoting “critical thinking.” The problem here is twofold. First, as Adler notes, studies on the matter are inconclusive about whether this claim is even true. Other disciplines may develop such thinking as much as the liberal arts. Second, which I think is Adler’s ultimate point, there is a concession built into this argument that the liberal arts and humanities cannot offer an internal defense of themselves. They must rely on social science to prove that the liberal arts produce a “skill” of “value.” As Adler notes, “[O]utsourcing claims about your value to other disciplines is a risky business.” Education conceived as conveying skills and technique, rather than wisdom and discernment, is a notion deployed by those who have forgotten—if they ever learned—what liberal education actually is. This defense ultimately reduces the liberal arts to servile arts.

Regarding thinking as a skill is not a pedagogically neutral stance. Recall my anecdote above about wanting to teach students to “think like historians” rather than simply “memorize names and dates.” The act of memorization is the acting of handing down knowledge. Bear in mind that the Latin root of tradition, tradere, means “to hand down.” The bias of modern pedagogy is that handing down knowledge, passing on an intellectual tradition, is a kind of second-rate education. Memorizing, repeating, and recognizing are among the lowest levels of learning, according to Bloom.

We deploy these faddish educational notions to the detriment of our students. What is often derided as “rote-learning” is actually essential to sophisticated analysis. Many of us were drilled in memorizing our times-tables in math. This sort of memorization creates a base of knowledge. We draw upon this foundational knowledge as we engage in more conceptual thinking. Just as learning an instrument or an athletic skill takes repetitive practice, so does learning math, science, history, and literature. As systems engineer Barbra Oakley and computational biologist Terrence Sejnowski put it, we need both fast learning, the kind promoted by memorization, and slow learning, characterized by deliberation. Slow learning works in symbiosis with fast learning. Oakley and Sejnowski, who have applied their expertise to education, find that deliberation relies on the ability to quickly recall bit and bobs of information, knowledge acquired through repetition and habit.

One thinks of the chapter in Eamon Duffy’s masterwork The Stripping of the Altars on “How the Ploughman Learned his Paternoster” in medieval England. Even a barely literate farmer could learn various prayers, devotions, and doctrinal teachings merely through repetition in liturgy, artwork, and religious theater. My citation of Gulliver above is of like manner. I was able to draw upon a piece of knowledge, namely the plot of Gulliver’s Travels, and employ it in a different context when attempting to explain a complex concept.

Thinking is a not a skill that must be taught. It emerges naturally from the acquisition of knowledge. In other words, students will instinctively think, even critically think, about what they know. The job of the teacher, especially at high grade levels and at the university, is to facilitate such thinking, much as the midwife facilitates childbirth.

Just as learning an instrument or an athletic skill takes repetitive practice, so does learning of math, science, history, and literature.


New over Old

Emphasis on thinking as a skill, and the concomitant de-emphasis on memorization, favors love of the new over respect for the old. It is no accident that our famous twentieth-century dystopian novels, such as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, all include destruction of the past. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s fictional government now burns books by official policy, but the novel clearly states that the elimination of books was originally by choice. Individuals would rather be amused by television, living merely for the present, than engage with the past via books. The book’s protagonist, Montag, meets a band of intellectuals, who, like the monasteries of old, have worked diligently to preserve ancient ideas. They have done so through memorization. If we apply Bloom’s Taxonomy, these intellectuals have engaged in the lowest level of learning. Yet from Bradbury’s point of view, they have preserved civilization.

This aspect of Fahrenheit 451 rings true to our time more than the other dystopias. In 1984 and Brave New World literature is suppressed by some form of authoritarianism. Yet, as I noted above, in Fahrenheit 451 it is not the government that initially suppresses books. People simply stop reading them. We, as in Bradbury’s fiction, have achieved the goals of Big Brother and the World Controller without the need for the surveillance and suppression of 1984 or the conditioning of Brave New World.

If you don’t introduce people to the past, it simply goes away. A people bereft of a tradition, all these dystopias argue, is easy to manipulate, easy to deceive. As Orwell famously put it, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The ideology of critical thinking carries within it a bias against the past, against the good of passing on the teaching of our ancestors. The job of the critical thinker is never to accept, never to venerate. It is always to debunk. Its approach to the past is not one of humility, but of cynicism. To this extent, the educational guild’s pedagogy is an enemy of wisdom.

Something to Think About

The first step to creating actual thinkers is giving them something to think about. Call it what you will: cultural literacy, liberal education, the grammar of the ancient trivium. Whatever the appellation, students need a firm grounding in the history, literature, and traditions of their people. This gives them a myriad of references on which to draw as they learn.

Much as people today regularly draw on popular culture, noting how this or that event mirrors something in a Marvel movie or how a particular notable figure reminds them of someone from Game of Thrones, better thinkers immerse themselves not just in the culture of today, but in the rich heritage of a civilization. This is true for two reasons, both anticipated in C. S. Lewis’s well known essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” First, the new has not been tested, while the old has. While we must avoid antiquarian credulity, we should generally put more faith in the value of the old than the new. Second, each age has its prejudices. A healthy way to combat our temporal prejudice is to get outside our times and read and contemplate older works.

Disciplining our minds to bring multiple, rich references to bear on a particular matter makes for superior discernment. This is not a “skill” or a “technique,” but instead an organic outgrowth of a wide knowledge base. The tendency of young people, as Mark Bauerlein notes in a recent First Things essay, is, to a degree, toward self-absorption. Any exercise that brings young people outside their own times is useful. Young people today tend to lack not just knowledge of the past, meaning names and dates, but also a historical imagination, the ability to sympathize with the past. Again, this is one of the pathologies of “critical thinking.” It encourages students and teachers to treat the past as a foreign country that we judge by today’s standards, lazily assuming that today’s standards must be superior.

Each age has its prejudices. A healthy way to combat our temporal prejudice is to get outside of our times and read and contemplate older works.


In Bloom’s Taxonomy, understanding the past as it understood itself is low-level thinking, whereas critiquing is considered high-level. It doesn’t encourage students to inhabit the minds of those who went before, or engage in the effort to encounter literature that might be alien to our times. Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Carpe Diem”: “The present / Is too much for the senses, / Too crowding, too confusing— / Too present to imagine.” An education that encourages sympathy for the past, holding the possibility that it might have something to teach us, allows us to escape the echo chamber of our time and gain perspective, which is the seed of wisdom.

Such a robust education would both hand down the treasures of civilization and encourage real thinking. One does not wish to suggest that students should easily agree with the past, though our tendency now is to easily disagree with it. And, of course, the past is not a monolith. To study a tradition is not to study a monologue, but a dialogue, even a polyphony. In memorizing old tales and history, students will as a matter of course encounter different views. They will, with only the slightest encouragement needed from a good teacher, start to think about those different views. Maybe even critically.


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