What Are You Memorizing?

Krista Tippett, one of my favorite podcasters, interviewed Seth Godin, one of my favorite writers, innovators, and thinkers, for her show On Being.

They touched on our education system’s unfortunate adherence to curricula based on rote memorization even now that the Internet has arrived.

Memorizing random facts or bits of information simply isn’t necessary when I can wonder how to spell Braille or what the population of Japan is and have the answer in 10 seconds.

So why do we still do it?

Because our school system was designed to train kids to be compliant factory workers. Those factory workers needed to know only enough information to do their jobs. Indeed, prominent voices in designing our industrial education system believed that giving students (who grow up to be workers) more education than the job requires (reading, writing, basic math) is dangerous.

The people who designed our schools didn’t necessarily want us to grow up thinking critically, solving problems, or creating. Our schools, for the most part, don’t even know how to teach us to do that stuff.

We learned to memorize information and then regurgitate it on command because that’s what we’d do in the workplace.

There’s a story about how the Buddha comes to a river where a great mystic lives, a man who had learned to walk across that water after 30 years of the most intense spiritual practice and devotion.

What a shame, Buddha said, to spend so much time learning how to do that when he could just pay the ferry guy a few coins to take him across. 

We have better uses for our time than memorizing random stuff.

This isn’t a diatribe against memorizing. I love memorizing.

But if we’re going to memorize, let’s memorize useful things, like a pilot learning the steps required to safely operate an airplane, or nourishing things, like a wandering, semi-retired lawyer committing passages from Gibran’s The Prophet to memory as guidance for how to go through the world.


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