The False Dichotomy of Rote Memorization and Critical Thinking

Beautiful Bones – Sakurako’s Investigation stands as my  favorite show of the new season.  I love the beautiful animation, quirky characters, and puzzling mysteries reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes.  The latest mystery, the one which concluded in episode five, strongly reminds one of The Hound of the Baskervilles with its elements of a cursed dog, “the watchdog of hell,” and the male line of a family suffering mysterious deaths produced by high stress.  The first episode of this arc even throws in my favorite Japanese author, Natsume Soseki, through  the dog’s name being drawn from the Hector of the collection of Soseki’s essays dubbed Within My Glass Doors.  (I started reading the Japanese edition of this only to stall it within a few chapters.)  Sakurako also mentions that the Hector of Troy is honored to this day as one of the Nine Worthies.  And, what wonderful knowledge of art Sakurako displayed in knowing that arsenic was the base of green paint used in the 18th century, and she even know about the chemical properties of arsenic and the effects of arsenic poisoning.

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The above list of disjointed facts has no doubt tired and turned away many of my dear readers.  So, I thank those who waited to see the point which I intend to make!  Sakurako could never have solved this mystery without having memorized many facts, events, and examples of human behavior.  Yet, in modern American education (i.e. the education style descended from Progressive educational theories propounded in the early 20th century), rote memorization has a bad name.  Critical thinking, on the other hand, is praised to the skies, as educators proclaim teaching critical thinking skills as their highest goal.  “What good are facts?” educators of the modernist heresy say.  “Does it make a student a better person to know that the Normans conquered England in 1066?”  Yes, it makes for a broader mind than that of the child ignorant of England’s change of rulers in the 11th century.  Also, one hears someone say that they are not impressed with children who read fine literature, because they do not reach an adult’s understanding of it.  But, they forget Chesterton’s dictum that if something is really worth doing (as reading the classics certainly is), it is worth doing badly.  The child who reads Dostoyevsky is better equipped in his twenties to penetrate deeper into this author’s thought and into the thought of many other authors in addition.

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Of course, I must add here that my reactionary Catholic educators, adhering to the usefulness of rote memorization and understanding of that finest work of literature–the Bible, and my broad reading allowed me to evaluate ideas and events through concepts of which my peers possessed no knowledge.  “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance ” (Matt. 13:12).  To him who has memorized much, critical thought shall be supplied and sharpened to a razor’s edge.  Thinking critically relies upon facts, events, and exemplars which the mind can apply to immediate problems.

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This concept is exemplified in Sakurako.  She does little besides play with bones and study.  It takes the more extroverted Shoutarou to get her to use this knowledge of hers for others, and each employment of her knowledge sharpens her critical thinking.  The anime even shows this as a kind of mystical power.  Perhaps it appears mystical to her associates–even as Holmes’s skill in solving cases appeared mystical to Watson, but it is no more than deduction or critical thinking.  So, it is that the student who simply reads, as long as his material is edifying, stands head and shoulders in the realm of critical thought above his fellows who avoid books.  In truth, there is no dichotomy between memorization of facts and critical thinking: they correspond to one another within the same persons–as Sakurako manifests in her perceptive intellect.

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8 comments on “The False Dichotomy of Rote Memorization and Critical Thinking

  1. Luminas says:

    “To him who has memorized much, critical thought shall be supplied and sharpened to a razor’s edge. Thinking critically relies upon facts, events, and exemplars which the mind can apply to immediate problems.”

    Well, sometimes. I agree with you that the modern emphasis on knowing “how to think” rather than “What would be cool to think about” rather misses the point, and not exposing a kid to a wide variety of facts and information makes for a dumb kid. I know that 2 x 3 = 6 because I know that 2 x 3 = 6, the same way I know that Henry VIII had way too many wives. I can use these facts and figures to supplement or emphasize my writing.

    But knowing something isn’t exactly a one-way ticket to being able to do something with that information, because they involve two different pathways in the brain. Anyone with either a learning or developmental disability can tell you that, because one of the two is often a little wonky. As can anyone who is called an “absentminded professor” or “armchair psychologist.” For example, I knew a ton about how miserable some low-income minority kids had it objectively, in facts, but it took meeting a few of them for me to realize how much I could do and needed to do. A funnier example: I cleaned out my broken drain of leaves, which caused the downstairs drain to flood, every day for six years. My sister took one look at the drain and realized that an awning would solve the problem. ;]

    • Yes, there is a second step after learning facts which must be taken in order to develop critical thinking. As you say, the pathways in the brain must be connected. The modern mistake is that they imagine people have a natural ability to figure things out just from looking at a present scenario without having studied similar examples of it. This happens in simple cases, but is less likely when things become more complex. For example, while watching a Detective Conan mystery with my sister, I solved it within the first four minutes. She was amazed as everything I said about the culprit and his modus operandi proved true. But, I had been reading a ton of Sherlock Holmes at the time, so referring to these mysteries made solving the Conan one no difficulty at all. If I hadn’t been reading Sherlock Holmes, I doubt it would have been so easy!

      And there is something to be said about the necessity of experience. To take the example of chess, I can tell a novice about the concepts of the pin, Intermezzo, the windmill, smothered mate, skewering, and Zugzwang. But, unless I show them these concepts in a game, they’re not likely to see them at key moments when they play.

  2. Rote memorization, or at least a strong amount of familiarization, is particularly important with the Bible, because the Biblical human authors made lots and lots of references to other books of the Bible. Also, many Biblical quotes actually refer to the stuff that comes immediately before or after the quote as well… so they really expected you to know these things backwards and forwards!

  3. jubilare says:

    Sadly, neither wrote memorization nor critical thinking are being taught in many public schools in the U.S. right now. I didn’t think education could actually get any worse, but watching what my teacher friends are dealing with is proving me wrong. 😦

    • We’re pretty much suffering from a century of progressive education. In Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, he describes trying to teach one of his sons the alphabet using new theories of education designed to make learning fun. He started with the letter H. After his son proved incapable of memorizing this letter, he switched to the old-fashioned ways of teaching. His son soon learned all the other letters of the alphabet, though H still gave him trouble long after he had learned the other letters. xD

      • jubilare says:

        Lol! Amusing, and yet, on another level, so not funny.
        I’m reminded of Lewis’s words, that if one is going in the wrong direction, the most progressive move is to turn around.
        I’m usually skeptical about “conspiracy theories” and such, but the blind bone-headedness of our current tail-chasing education theory makes me wonder if there aren’t powers that be who simply want as ignorant a populace as possible.
        We have schools still using the old systems and churning out successes. We have other nations with fantastic education programs which we could try and emulate. But what do we do? We try and reinvent the wheel as a triangle. 😛

  4. […] like Bible verses (or chapters or books) to memory. Rote memorization gets a bad wrap, but as Beautiful Bones – Sakurako’s Investigation demonstrates, it can actually support critical thinking […]

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