Sunday, November 30, 2014

Memorization and a well-ordered mind

"I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind."

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4:3

I was really challenged this morning by Csikszentmihalyi's ideas on the usefulness of memorization. 

"A person who can remember stories, poems, lyrics of songs, baseball statistics, chemical formulas, mathematical operations, historical dates, biblical passages, and wise quotations has many advantages over one who has not cultivated such a skill. The consciousness of such a person is independent of the order that may or may not be provided by the environment. She can always amuse herself, and find meaning in the contents of the mind. While others need external stimulation--television, reading, conversation, or drugs--to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained. Additionally, such a person is also a much more cherished companion, because she can share the information in her mind, and thus help bring order into the consciousness of those with whom she interacts."

And he bemoans the effects of educational reform that eliminated rote memorization from schools:

"But for a person who has nothing to remember, life can become severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that "rote learning" was not an efficient way to store and acquire information... The reformers would have had justification, if the point of remembering was simply to solve practical problems. But if the control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort."
In previous posts, I've argued like these early reformers, that with the internet so widely available, memorization of facts can be replaced by the web, and we will have more mental energy and time for higher order thinking. And it's true--technology builds on itself. If we still had students memorize the Iliad, we wouldn't have the time to teach them to use Google, which they can use to access the Iliad and much more.

But his point is well taken. We have to provide order to our minds. The internet can't do that for us (yet). Rote memorization is one way to do this. (Other ways include the various flow activities, from sports to culinary arts to meditation). It also serves as practice for controlling our consciousness and makes life more enjoyable.

So what to memorize? Csikszentmihalyi suggests starting with something you are intensely interested in, whether it be sports statistics, songs or poetry. The goal here, after all, is enjoyment.

But there's a higher level as well, that of order. In the next section of the book he is beginning to discuss the flow-producing effects of language, mathematics, science, and philosophy. It seems we could kill two birds with one stone if our rote memorization is part of a system of thought that could help provide order to our consciousness in general. We'll see...

BTW, here's the full passage from Meditations 4:
"Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind."

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