Original Article: Pearl Leff | In Praise of Memorization
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I was early in my career at the time and stunned by the sheer productivity and brilliance of these engineers. Finally, when I got a moment alone with one of them, I asked him how they had gotten to where they were.
He explained that they had been software engineers together in the intelligence units of their country's military together. Their military intelligence computers hadn't been connected to the internet, and if they wanted to look something up online, they had to walk to a different building across campus. Looking something up online on StackOverflow was a major operation. So they ended up reading reference manuals and writing down or memorizing the answers to their questions because they couldn't look up information very easily. Over time, the knowledge accumulated.
Memorization means purposely learning something so that you remember it with muscle memory; that is, you know the information without needing to look it up.
Every educator knows that memorization is passé in today's day and age. Facts are so effortlessly accessible with modern technology and the internet that it's understanding how to analyze them that's important. Names, places, dates, and other kinds of trivia don't matter, so much as the ability to logically reason about them. Today anything can be easily looked up.
But as I've gotten older I've started to understand that memorization is important, much more than we give it credit for. Knowledge is at our fingertips and we can look anything up, but it's knowing what knowledge is available and how to integrate it into our existing knowledge base that's important.
You Can't Reason Accurately Without Knowledge You know a lot of things.
A lot of life involves reasoning: taking this information you have and making hypotheses that connect different pieces in a way that provides a deeper understanding of them.
The more information you have muscle memory for, the more you can use to reason about.
But you can't draw connections between things you don't know exist, or don't have a good "feel" for.
The problem with not memorizing is that you're limited by the lack of data points, or nodes that you can make connections between. In short, you're limited by your lack of understanding of what to look up.
Here's a small illustration.
Many would argue that there is no point for kids to memorize the world map today. But if you know basic geography, you will hear all kinds of political analysis that only works because the person arguing it doesn't have any idea where anything is on a map. This is the problem with not making school kids learn basic geography. You can look up any country on Google, but if you've never had to memorize approximately where they are, either voluntarily or in school, you'll never get a sense of why things are the way they a...