Jonathan Zimmerman: Memorize this!

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, is teaching this year at NYU's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

My 12-year-old daughter recently asked me to help her prepare for a computer-science test for school. She produced a study sheet with several terms that she would have to define, including mouse, point, click and drag.

I suppressed a laugh. Like many kids today, my daughter started double-clicking before she could walk. "Don't you have some math homework?" I asked.

"You don't understand, Dad," she replied. "We have to memorize the definitions."

So we did. A "mouse," we noted, is "an input device that can be used to give commands to an operating system." To "click" means "to press and release a mouse button." And, just to be clear, to "point" means "to move the mouse pointer to a specific location on the screen by moving the mouse."

Got that? So did my daughter. And she got an "A" on the test, too.

Welcome to another day of learning in Ghana. Rote memorization dominates every part of the education system here, from the universities and elite private grade schools (like the one my daughter attends) to public secondary and elementary classrooms.

Wherever you look, the method is the same: Memorize and regurgitate, ad nauseam.

To be sure, all schooling requires a certain amount of rote. At the start of your education, you learned to recite the alphabet; a few years after that, you memorized your times-tables. But you did those tasks in order to expand your knowledge, not as ends in themselves. Memorizing the alphabet helps you learn to read; multiplication tables allow you to someday solve mathematical problems.

Here in Ghana, however, memorization and knowledge are often one and the same. Even in university examinations, some professors demand the word-for-word phrases that they used in class. If you rephrase in your own words, you get points taken off.

Why this reliance on rote? For nearly a century, Americans have been going overseas and asking that same question. To American teachers in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, which the U.S. acquired in the war of 1898, rote methods reflected the alleged mental inferiority of America's new colonial subjects. In their letters home, frustrated teachers described students who could memorize vast swaths of information but lacked the intellect to analyze. "They are quick to learn," wrote one, "but slow to think."

By the mid-20th century, American teachers overseas typically attributed the rote problem to culture rather than to race. The penchant for memorization reflected different cultural traditions rather than any inherent deficiency. And that was good, because culture - unlike race - could be changed.

But as rote learning became linked to culture, Americans became loath to criticize it. At its root, after all, the culture concept held that certain traits were neither better nor worse; they were simply different. So if other peoples preferred to educate themselves by rote learning, why should Americans interfere?

By the 1960s, some Peace Corps teachers were attacking the agency's own efforts to alter rote instruction. "We are skeptical of current attempts to impose Western educational methods upon a non-receptive culture," wrote two volunteers in Ethiopia. After all, they argued, Ethiopian students lived in a "pre-Biblical" culture, for which rote was perfectly appropriate. Trying to wean them off this method was worse than futile; it was ethnocentric.

In the early 1980s, when I served as a Peace Corps teacher in Nepal, this argument had become ubiquitous. Like Ghanaians, Nepalese teachers relied almost entirely upon rote. Some Americans tried to change that, but felt guilty about it. By the end of our terms, many of us were teaching much like the locals.

Only now, in Ghana, can I see how wrong we were. Talk to educated Ghanaians, and they'll gladly expound on the deficiencies of rote teaching. They even have their own slogan for it: Chew, pour, pass, and forget. Rote instruction isn't working, and the people here understand that better than we do.

So why does it persist? The problem lies less in the lofty abstractions of culture than in the hard realities of poverty. Ghanaians learn by rote because that's all they can afford. The University of Ghana's main campus near Accra has doubled its enrollment over the past decade - to about 28,000 - without a proportional addition of faculty. As many as 900 students crowd into a single class, sometimes gathering in the hallways because they can't find a seat in the lecture hall. Discussion and critical thinking? Think again.

Ditto for the secondary and elementary schools, where students sit in windowsills or on backless benches. Throw in paltry teacher salaries and inadequate training, and you're almost guaranteed poor instruction. The average schoolteacher here makes about $200 a month, which simply isn't enough to support a family; so teachers take other jobs, diminishing the time and energy they can devote to their profession. They teach like it was done to them: by rote.

But so do many Americans, no matter what they might tell you. The American critique of rote learning around the world suggests that we've somehow transcended this method back home, elevating critique and analysis over chalk and talk. If only!

In my own field, U.S. history, one-third of introductory college courses still use a single textbook as their sole assigned reading. On the average, these courses assign over two-thirds of the final grade to examinations. You know the drill: Read the textbook, write down what the professor says, and repeat it in the test.

In learning history, to be fair, you do have to memorize some names and dates. But you do so as a basis for raising questions, testing theories and drawing conclusions. And a course with a single textbook probably can't do that.

Here in Ghana, by contrast, virtually every course revolves around rote. That's one reason that many Ghanaians say they would like to study in America: they want to know how to think, not what to think. So they're often surprised to learn that students in the United States are also crowded into lecture halls, where they too must learn to memorize and regurgiate, ad nauseam.

Even as we assail other people's education, then, we might pause to examine our own. Instruction in America is not as poor as Ghana, that's for sure. But it's not nearly as rich as it should be either, given how wealthy we are.

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