The Death of Memory

In education—as perhaps in all things—we are what we do. John Dewey thought so, and Marshall McLuhan believed the message of any class resides in the sort of learning valued there. Without making a single explicit statement about what’s important, teachers implant habits that shape students’ sense of what learning is.

In Neil Postman’s 1969 treatise on education, Teaching As a Subversive Activity, he looked at classrooms of the time and saw education centered on content. He observed students facing forward, watching and listening to their instructors transmitting knowledge gleaned from authorities greater than themselves. Later, he said, students would be asked to demonstrate their own belief in these authorities on tests or in other assessments. “Mostly they are required to remember,” Postman said, “They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true.”

This educational model may persist in places, but at my school, observing, deriving definitions and rules, and performing useful intellectual operations seem commonplace and central. Many teachers regard class as a sort of mental training ground where students exercise their ability to observe, to compare and contrast, to discern patterns in data, to recognize blueprints behind the solutions they find. The McLuhanian message of current classroom practice is that knowledge is less important than using it. A well-trained brain is a tool, and improving its operation is the worthiest aspiration of education.

I’m generally happy with this emphasis on doing. It makes teaching fun, practical and variable, open to inventive and interesting activities. Most importantly, current techniques put students at the center of education.

But I’m not entirely happy. Postman also noted every change produces unanticipated consequences, losses as well as gains. While our methods encourage resourceful and flexible minds, the popularity of emphasizing experience over content, training over knowledge, and application over retention undermines the crucial skill Postman addressed originally, remembering. Students spend so much time using information that their memories are largely untested and untrained and certainly undervalued.

Put data to interpret or analyze before my students, and they are impressive. Ask them to repeat a procedure they’ve practiced multiple times, and they hum like machines. However, if you ask them to recall the content we encountered last month, last week, or even yesterday, they may flounder. Many read for the overall plot and broad themes, not to remember particulars. Most feel responsible for broad concepts and patterns first. The only important details are ones with immediate use. And, once used, most of those details slip away.

Sometimes they remember last night’s reading the way you might recall a movie watched some time ago. When I take them to the brink of a scene or piece of dialogue, they suddenly retrieve what’s next. Information that’s out of context, however, often appears elusive. They struggle with questions like “Who can describe another time Huck apologizes?” and “What are some words Huck used to describe his father in this chapter?” At my school, I am one of the few English teachers who still gives tests—“I don’t care whether they remember names” some colleagues say—but when I do, even my best students stumble on fill-in-blanks and other objective assessments. “I always do so badly on the trivia sections of your tests,” one protested recently.

Some of my students still seek the pride of knowing and feel compelled to attain a thorough and exact memory of books, but some of their peers regard them skeptically and find their compulsion strange and suspect… surely brown-nosing. These skeptics need frequent reminders that discerning interpretations arise from discerning knowledge. They take notes if I insist, but they have trouble judging relevance for themselves. Often they assume someone somewhere has already written it down. They can seek information from the electronic devices circling them like satellites. There are e-texts ready for searching and, should they be stuck on what the author is trying to accomplish, some e-source is ready to explain and point out relevant details they’ve forgotten or overlooked. The goal is to remember content until the assessment or exam—if it hasn’t been replaced with a project—and then jettison it.

Please understand, I’m not insulting my students’ intelligence. Quite the contrary, many are smarter than I am and, properly trained, many could have memories far more powerful than mine. But remembering just isn’t that important in current education. Though teachers still regard learning as cumulative, it adds up differently. And, taking cues from their teachers, students seek to accumulate study skills rather than knowledge. They regard the “stuff’ we study as training material, a means to an end. One welcome side effect of putting practice ahead of memory is that students rarely ask, “Why do we need to know this?” Their assumption—and possibly our assumption—is that they don’t.

And maybe educators should be glad the bad old days of memorizing and regurgitating masses of arcane information are largely gone. Still, I wish we could restore some of that old school emphasis on remembering. As much as I enjoy the improvisational activity of my classroom and believe training brains should be the chief aspiration of education, I suspect I might enjoy teaching even more with exact detail to discuss and debate. For me, memory is a foundation education can’t do without.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, John Dewey, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Teaching, Thoughts

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