The Downside to Memorization and Its Defense

I read an article today that peaked my interest since I have been thinking about memorization a lot more recently. As I have emphasized much of the good associated with memorization (of which I think there is plenty), there can also be a downside. At times the focus is placed too heavily on recitation without any concern for understanding.

At The Atlantic, Ben Orlin writes an article titled When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning that comes down pretty heavy-handed against memorization. But he does then seek to build it back up to be more useful. Some of what he says I might disagree with, partly because of the limited definition he places upon memorization, “learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort.” But I’d share his biggest concern, which is that memorization detaches what is memorized from a web of meaning and connections and context. Orlin writes:

Some things are worth memorizing–addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays. The sine of π/2 is not among them. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.

This relates directly to this week’s memory verse. The words we may know by heart that precede our taking of communion may already be memorized. But if we know the words without knowing the meaning and significance, what have we gained? It is the same concern with memorizing the creeds or a catechism. Or why would we memorize the Lord’s Prayer if you only do so that you can recite it with your brain turned off?

This isn’t to say memorization is bad. We just need to remember its place. I want memorization of Scripture to be a result of long meditation and thoughtful reflection. It should be a desire of ours to know these great passages of God’s Word so well that we can recall them even if our Bible isn’t around. The end goal really isn’t memorization. Memorization can be and should be a tool to help us learn and retain. As we do so we’ll only then gain a greater sense of awe and wonder at the goodness of our God.

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