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  • Ninay Desai

Memory: What we need to remember

There was a time when to be considered well-educated or cultured, you had to be able to recall facts, figures and preferably, whole passages from notable books verbatim. Today, all that is considered old hat and unnecessary. Barring one or two, I don’t know any people under the age of 50 who could recite a poem from memory. Forget poetry, I’d be surprised to meet someone who can dial more than 4 cellphone numbers, belonging to people they speak to regularly, without diving for their mobile. The externalisation of our memories got us to this point.


Memory and brain overload
... and most of the them aren't responding!

From phone numbers, email addresses to birthday and anniversaries, it’s all saved on our phones or on some faraway cloud. There are people who believe that in the hectic, information-overloaded lives we lead, it makes sense to let external memories take care of these small potatoes for us. But is the externalisation of our memories only about freeing up our grey cells for more lofty matters? Or is it a move to pronounce memory a relic in our post post-modern or metamodern times or whatever else folks are calling the decades we’ve lived through in this century?


It's been fashionable for some time now to disparage all kinds of memorisation in education as being part of rote-learning. The slow disappearance of memorization in classrooms has its philosophical roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 novel, Emile: Or, On Education. The book was about a child raised by means of a “natural education,” learning only through self-experience. Rousseau abhorred memorization, amongst other statutes of institutional education at the time.

“Reading is the great plague of childhood,”

he wrote. While there is no doubt, I’m sure, that the educational ideology that Rousseau so disliked was genuinely mind-numbing and called for improvement, I’m not so sure that reading is such an evil so as to be compared to a plague. In today’s context, maybe calling it a pain in the neck would be more like it!

Children remember what they understand.

Jokes apart, I agree that children learn more from growing plants than memorising scientific classifications of plant species. Therefore, should all facts be tossed out of the window? There are those who consider the learning of dates and events in history to be pointless since we can just look them up on the internet, within seconds. Sure, you could, if you knew what you were looking for.


For instance, if I asked you when the Great Depression began, you could just google it. That’s very well, if your question is specific. But what if we were talking about the Second World War? Could you have made the connection between the impact that the Great Depression had on Germany’s already strained economy culminating in Hilter’s elevation to the top job, leading eventually to the outbreak of World War II if you’d never read about the Great Depression? Making connections requires, at the very least, a basic understanding of what happened, when and why. The precise dates don't matter but the broad timeline of the events does. Without that, it’s like walking through a fog. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve clearly never searched for the word ‘ouija’ in a dictionary only on the basis of its pronunciation without having the foggiest idea of its spelling. I assure you, it’s not for the easily-frustrated!


Another opinion one hears a lot nowadays, is how schools should be teaching students how to think, not what to think and therefore, the focus on learning about too many ‘boring things' should be minimised, and out-of-the-box thinking encouraged. I’m a big fan of people possessing critical thinking skills but I’ve never known anyone who can think coherently without having the ability to recall at least some facts and having fundamental knowledge of how things came about in whichever field they’re talking about. A certain grounding is essential. It’s very rare that reasoning ability, creativity and independent thinking, let alone revolutionary new ideas, emerge without at least, some learning. Most of us are not Srinivasa Ramanujam and therefore, need some help before we can begin to expound. The key, I believe, lies in focusing on understanding ideas and the correlation and causality between things, not memorizing minutiae.


Speaking of bright people, have you noticed how people who know a lot about a lot always seem to be able to remember the new stuff they learn faster than others who don’t know as much? Why is that?

Memory matters because all ideas grow out of other ideas.

Is it possible that like in the case of money, it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. I mean that in order to understand new things, one needs a conceptual framework, a lattice of ideas and concepts, if you will. New information sticks faster and better if you have something for it to latch itself onto. Obviously, this lattice is not built only of information found in books but also grows out of experiential learning and one’s interests. But the point is, that it needs to be remembered in order to be useful.


One way to foster inquisitive, knowledgeable people is to give them, in some measure, the basic signposts that can guide them through a life of learning. Creativity is the ability to spark connections between what you know from memory, what you see in the present and what you’d like to create. I read somewhere that Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory, was the mother of the Muses. This is one of those times when Greek mythology gets it right on the money! For me to have added this delicious little nugget here, I had to remember it because there is no way that I could’ve googled that, without first having, at least, an inkling of the myth.


Education reform that sets off to vanquish evils such as memorizing may make school more pleasant for students but will it really help them think more critically or creatively? That’s a question we need to think about before we start demonising everything that needs to be remembered. Before I end, I want to share that when I was writing this post, I passed by my father’s study and he was listening to We didn’t start the Fire by Billy Joel. It’s always been a favourite of mine and it got me thinking. If I hadn’t read or heard about the events and people mentioned, would I have appreciated the song?


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6 comentarios


Invitado
12 mar

Very well summarized....

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
12 mar
Contestando a

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Dilip Desai
Dilip Desai
15 sept 2023

Good piece.

Having a good memory is not merely helpful but quite very useful. Essential facts, basics and the like should be available in the head, to be recalled when needed. As also to make those connections between seemingly unconnected facts or trivia.

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
15 sept 2023
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Thank you. I'm glad you liked the post.

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portia.putatunda
03 sept 2023

What a beautiful way to explain about the importance of memorising even now with the quick access to internet! Loved it!

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
04 sept 2023
Contestando a

Human memory aids thinking in a way that no number of external tools can. That's my opinion, anyway. Thanks for reading.

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