Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Defense of Rote

If Americans love doing one thing, it's scaring themselves as to how dumb their kids are.  Now, I'll grant you that 50% of the people actually do need the government to tell them such things as "Nutella is not a healthy breakfast food", or not to stick a fork in a plugged-in-toaster to retrieve that last bit of PopTart.  But that's the case everywhere.  The reason why US students routinely test somewhere between "rock" and "bottom" in reading and math skills, compared to their international First-World counterparts, is because the US mandates that everybody, regardless of aptitude or inclination, goes to high school (college, in the Netherlands, gymnasium if you're smart). But this fact doesn't quell the niggling fear that my generation and the one following is dangerously undereducated.  This article is a case in point--you can practically hear the tears of lamentation as Kaekes argues that technology is replacing thinking when it comes to teaching math.

To an extent, I can agree.  My parents, besides not letting me use a calculator until middle school, also forced my brother and I to do page after page of math over summer vacation until I was 10 or thereabouts.  It seemed to constitute only the worst form of torture--ever.  And it wasn't as if they were clever math problems, either--adding and subtracting 3, 4, 5-digit numbers, multiplying them, dividing them, for page after page.  I seem to recall fractions--double-digit numerators and denominators--though that might be the horror of retrospect superimposing a bad dream on a nightmare. 

You might be thinking, "But that's rote learning, not thinking!"  To which I would agree--rote learning and memorizing the multiplication tables is painfully dull and boring and probably the best way to get your kid to hate you.  But what it enabled later on--factoring, algebra, trigonometry, calculus--was so complicated that you simply couldn't afford to get bogged down in something so mundane as arithmetic. I never was a math person--I survived calculus and then promptly forgot it all--but to this day I would rather take a moment to run some numbers through my head than bother hunting down my calculator to see if coffee really is a good deal that week.  I think about other things, rather than fret over the math.

But when you come down to it, though, a lot of things are like this:   you have to get really good at the most boring of the basic things before you can start having fun.  There is nothing exciting about chopping onions, but a carmelized-onion-and-mustard quiche is nothing short of divine.  Playing scales is dull--playing Chopin is not, but you cannot master Chopin without understanding things like rhythm and tempo and how to slide your thumb under you hand so that you can play scales without a break. In aikido, you need to master the kamites before you get around to kicking ass.  You can't learn to think if you don't have anything to think about.  


  1. I was never good at memorizing lists of stuff: it plagues me in learning Dutch vocabulary or (when much younger) contemplating going to medical school. But I agree that rote learning has it's place. You don't want to have to reason out a sentence during conversation; you just want to say it. A doctor should recognize your disease, not explore the space around it.

    My father gave me page after page of math drills until I could reflexively recognize the answer to a problem. The benefit is not in recognizing that 11 x 6 is 66, but in being able to quickly wrap estimated answers around life's questions. From quickly sizing up a restaurant bill to recognizing if my business tax is right to sizing up a consumer market, having a 'feel' for numbers derived from that early drill really helps.

    Now I just need to do that for Dutch

  2. I never really had a problem with vocabulary. Conjugating verbs, OTOH, drives me nuts.