Saturday, July 24, 2010


I recently came across a collection of essays by Ralph Raimi, a curmudgeonly old math professor. They are generally short, and quite interesting. I was glad to read in one of his essays on memorization that he shares one of my values.

While in school, many of my classmates (and even I myself, on occasion), complained about the injustice of memorizing formulas and the like when reference books would be readily available when they were needed. Since that time, I have changed my thinking (perhaps mostly because I realize how ridiculous it would be to have to depend on books so much in my daily working life).

As readers of my erstwhile blog may know, I am a proponent of memorizing children's poetry. I would support other memorizings, such as historical documents or speeches, but poems are my preference.

Here is what Professor Raimi has to say on the subject:

I believe I will call for a campaign to restore memory to the position of respect it had up to about a hundred years ago, when school children memorized orations of Abraham Lincoln, scenes from Shakespeare, The Wreck of the Hesperus and Casey at the Bat, not to mention the procedures of arithmetic. The fact that some teachers drilled children in routines that were not given sense does not mean that drill as such creates a vacuum in the brain. I have known actors who memorized scenes from Shakespeare and also knew what they were about. I have known chemists who knew the size of the dihedral angle in a regular tetrahedron (do you?) and understood organic chemistry too.

There is no harm in knowing things, and much value. Some of the actors who memorized their parts in Shakespeare (I have known them quite well, all my adult life) did not in fact understand much of what they were saying during the first few read-throughs, but would never have got on to their characters if they hadn't first had the words in their minds and ready to their tongues. Why is a technique thousands of years old, and still considered valid in the teaching of music and theater, reviled in school mathematics?
Click here to czech out some of his other essays.

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