This is the text of a talk I gave today at a conference on liberal education.
Liberal education aims for broad knowledge, so that students can gain a connected view of things, so that they can see the wood for the trees, so that they can escape the trap of being stuck in the present with no points of reference in the past, or the trap of being stuck in one place without points of reference around the globe.
Those who propose a liberal education for the young tend to be those who have acquired, to a greater or lesser extent, such broad knowledge. When they see a current political event, they have a rich range of comparison points from history, both modern and ancient. They want to share this richness with those who have not yet acquired it. But there are many obstacles to doing so. I want to focus on the importance of memory, and especially of the traditional practice of explicit memorisation, for overcoming these obstacles.
Cognitive science gives us many indications about how it is that a novice makes the journey to expertise in any given subject. The first thing to note is that knowledge is based within specific subjects. It is domain specific. There is no such thing, in fact, as general knowledge. Knowledge is always specific. In any specific domain of knowledge, the beginner must build up a foundation of overall knowledge which will help him to fit each successive new item into its place. This is called a schema. In history, he will need to begin with an overall understanding of the different eras in history. This knowledge needs to be firmly in place in order for him to make sense of the detail of historical events within each age. It needs to be mastered. It needs to be memorised so thoroughly that the pupil can recount it fluently, almost without thinking, in the way that we speak our native tongue. Only once this has been achieved can the pupil build on firm foundations in studying more detailed historical events.
A thoroughly memorised schema is vital for making sense of knowledge, for building it up in a connected way. But it is also vital for enabling pupils to really think in any given domain. Human working memory is extremely limited. It can hold between four and seven items at a time. Thus if we wish to think about anything broader than what is immediately in front of us, if we even want to understand a sentence that is more than a few words long, we must rely upon memory. For broader thinking about history, we must depend upon what we have stored in long term memory. We perceive a particular event, then we draw out various examples of other events that we have memorised. Without a large store of such material in our long term memory, we will be simply incapable of thinking historically.
The problem for liberal educators today is that it is very unlikely that they acquired their broad knowledge through an explicit programme of memorisation, as this has virtually disappeared from our general education system. Therefore someone who has acquired broad historical knowledge is, by definition, an exceptional person with an extraordinary amount of intrinsic motivation and intellectual capacities well above the average. When they attempt to pass on this knowledge to the young, they therefore have a tendency to expect such motivation and such capacities in them. In the vast majority of cases, they are disappointed.
If we want to extend liberal education to the large majority of young people, we must reintroduce thorough and systematic programmes of explicit memorisation. Young people must be drilled in the foundations of each subject discipline, and drilled so thoroughly that they have fluency in them. This is not exciting and thrilling in itself. It requires dutiful hard work on the part of teacher and pupil. But without this dutiful hard work, we are abandoning the vast majority of people to a narrow, intellectually crippled life.
The process may not be exciting, but the result is. I have seen myself, after a year of drilling my pupils in core knowledge of literature and history, how much they can learn when simple, traditional methods of memorisation and oral drill are used. I have also seen how capable they then are of making reasoned arguments based on objective truth, not vague waffle about their ‘personal opinions’.