Is memorization still important in Christian education? We live in an age of constantly changing information, and that knowledge (new and old) is disseminated so quickly that it exceeds any of our capacities to stay current. Information is available at the click of a button, and some things that we learn today will become obsolete tomorrow. As a result, you might hear educators downplaying memorization. They assert that an education consisting mainly of rote memorization is inadequate and largely unhelpful as we think about life in contemporary society. I agree. Of course, so did plenty of educators and thinkers for thousands of years. Cicero wrote, “To know the laws is not to memorize their letter but to grasp their full force and meaning.” In fact, I am unable to find a single instance in the history of education where there was a widespread movement that promoted the teaching of simple facts through repetition without expecting some sort of understanding, application, or other higher-order thinking skills. Nonetheless, it is common to hear and read quick criticisms of memorization in education with little explanation or clarification. Such critiques are too general to be of much help.
There are compelling arguments that education in past ages dealt with a body of knowledge that changed less rapidly than today. You could teach that body of knowledge and it would serve a group of people well throughout their lifetime, even a couple of lifetimes. Learn a certain set of facts and skills, learn how to apply them, and you are pretty much set for life, at least in terms of the basics. The critics of that model today point out that life in the twenty-first century is not that certain or static. Life in this age requires skills to constantly learn, unlearn, and relearn. The average person will shift jobs many times, and the tasks within one job may transform significantly over a lifetime. I accept these claims as well. An education that is 90 percent memorization and 10 percent higher-order thinking will probably not work well for many people today.
With that said, there is a risk of going too far in the other direction—minimizing memorization so much that we are left with skills and no knowledge, a desire to build but no building blocks. With that in mind, I suggest eleven simple areas where memorization is still important.
In Psalm 119:11 the psalmist wrote, “I have stored up Your word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” In Joshua 1:8 we read, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” If these passages are not enough, consider how often the Gospels recount Jesus quoting Scripture. I’d say that is a pretty good indication that memorizing Scripture is valuable.
Years ago, I had a friend who grew up in a Christian church as a child. He later got caught up in drugs and a rough lifestyle, eventually abandoning his faith altogether. One night in college, he retold a dark moment in his life. He was standing beside a cliff, wondering if life was worth continuing. At that moment, a Bible passage came to mind: “The Lord is my shepherd . . .” He started to recite Psalm 23, a passage that he had been taught over a decade before, and God worked through His Word in this psalm to minister to the young man in a time of need. That was a turning point in his life. That story reminds me about the power of memorizing Scripture.
I’ve heard similar stories about elderly people near the end of life. While their physical bodies are failing them and they might even struggle with some mental faculties, many are still able to join in the Lord’s Prayer. Longstanding Bible passages that teachers or parents helped them put to memory remain anchors years later. When we help young people memorize Scripture, we are helping them to build such anchors that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Memorizing lists, taxonomies, basic timelines, and other such facts offer a helpful way to keep track of one’s thoughts, especially in a world of constantly changing information. Memorizing these types of things gives us something upon which to sort, organize, and hang the changing body of knowledge that we collect, analyze, and apply.
Vocabulary and Syntax
Without putting some of this to memory, we lose the ability to effectively communicate, to collaborate and to learn from one another. We can apply this to learning more about our first language, learning additional languages, learning about a new discipline or field of study, and learning skills like computer programming. Failing to have a working vocabulary greatly limits our ability to connect, think, and learn.
Poetry, Prose, and Music Lyrics
Memorizing quotes, portions of poetry, and the like gives us immediate access to resources that we can use when communicating ideas to others. It also gives us immediate access to ideas, stories, and messages that are of personal importance. Why not store them in a place where I can review and reflect upon them in an instant, namely, my brain? This may or may not be a critical skill for accomplishing tasks at work, but it can enhance one’s work, add valuable flavor (and persuasive power) to one’s communication, and enrich one’s life.
Models, Steps, and Frameworks
In my education work, I’ve always found it helpful to put to memory certain models and frameworks so that I can quickly and easily share them with others. It also allows me to more easily apply them. For me, that includes things like the ADDIE model of instructional design, the SAMR model for effective technology integration, the PERMA approach to positive psychology and well-being, the ARCS model for motivation, the SCAMPER approach to creativity, and the five key questions for designing effective learning experiences. Some of these may become less valuable over time, or I might adapt or replace them with others. Nonetheless, putting them to memory now provides me with a powerful thinking tool.
Items of Personal, Cultural, and National Importance
This might relate to our Lutheran identity, cultural heritage, or regional and national identity. There are certain insights that I consider valuable enough that I want to store them in my long-term memory, allowing me to access and reflect on them at any moment. For me, that relates to quotes from Christian texts; key names, dates, and events that are tied to my Lutheran faith tradition; things like the Bill of Rights; and short proverbial statements or phrases that serve as guides and reminders. Having such things memorized is a way of cultivating a sense of personal identity and easily communicating that identity to others.
Names of People and Important Facts about Them
This goes for people whom we know directly as well as authors and authorities whom we value. In terms of building positive relationships or being persuasive, saying “what’s his name” does not work out. Taking the time to memorize these things is a way of showing genuine interest, honor, and respect for the people around us. I write this one realizing that it is an area where I have much room for improvement.
This can be word-for-word memorization or simply memorizing the sequence and key elements of a story. These may be lived stories or ones that inspire or connect us to something valuable, fiction or nonfiction. Whatever the case, the ability to tell a good story from memory is yet another powerful communication tool. The art of great storytelling is just as valuable today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago.
Fundamental Laws and Theorems
I’ve learned firsthand that failing to put some of these to memory makes it impossible to engage in higher-order thinking and problem solving in a given domain.
Geography, Community, and Organizational Facts
It is difficult to have an informed discussion about many world or regional events without having certain facts put to memory. Have you ever tried giving directions to a person who doesn’t know the area? You keep stretching to find some sort of shared knowledge about a landmark or street and then build from there. In a world of GPS devices, this becomes less important in a way, but it can still be quite helpful, especially in conversations with others, even building rapport with another person. This is where community facts come into play as well—from the best restaurants to different stores, historic sites, services, and hot spots in a community. The same goes for memorizing certain facts about organizations with which we are involved. This allows us to serve as guides and resources for one another, but it also helps us more easily plan and navigate (physically or mentally) around these places and spaces.
Yes, I know there are apps that are supposed to solve this for us, but there are just certain things that I want to keep stored in my mental safe and nowhere else.
As I stated at the beginning, an education of rote memorization is not adequate for life and learning in the twenty-first century, but it never was adequate. However, this is no argument against the importance of memory. There are still plenty of things worth putting to memory.
By the way, if this topic interests you, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the role of memory work in the forthcoming CPH book The Pedagogy of Faith.