25 June 2010

Math, Memorization, and Mind Control

The educational system in the Village is famous for producing students who are almost as good at memorizing and calculating as my smartphone. Because students have to pass high stakes tests of their information regurgitation skills to move on in the education system, the system ensures that only masters of those skills are likely to succeed. This meritocracy based on math and memory is of course much older than the Village itself, originating over 50 years ago in the Imperial Examination System of the beloved Motherland. (The picture above is of Imperial Examination Cells in Guandong.)

In the days when China first ruled the world, having a standardized education system, and the resulting standardized belief system, was a huge advantage. Other societies couldn’t muster the kind of organized manpower that the Motherland’s mastery of math, memorization and mind control could, and so they were conquered and integrated into the Empire.

Times have changed. Importantly, the rate at which the times change has changed. Memorizing knowledge from the past is only useful to the extent that it helps you predict the future. But the past is increasingly irrelevant for predicting the future. Besides, if I want to perform some calculation or recall some fact, my brainpower is augmented by so many devices that I'd prefer to use my mental capacity for tasks that my phone can't do better than me.

Not only is this emphasis on math and memorization largely useless, it's harmful as well. In a society where everyone knows the same facts and believes the same things, where are the innovations going to come from? Big Beijing is in a difficult spot. On the one hand, they know that there is an "innovation gap" between China and the US. On the other hand, the kind of education system that would allow them to close that gap would also create waves of people capable of seeing through their propaganda, which might threaten their sacred stability. So far, their solution to this conundrum seems to be stealing and copying innovations from other countries. But that strategy will keep China perpetually behind the curve.

There is a rare psychological disorder that causes people to remember everything. Literally. So our tendency to forget things isn't due to some innate limit on the brain's information storage system. We forget because forgetting is useful. These people who remember everything have a lot of difficulties in life. Their personal relations suffer, because they remember every little thing that anyone ever did to them. Forgiveness is a lot harder when you can't forget. Also, they have trouble making sense of the world. To forget is to focus on what's important. Some information has emotional salience to me, I naturally remember that information. Other information doesn't, and I will only remember that kind of information through effort and repetition. Remembering only what's important allows us to better pick out patterns in an increasingly complex world.

The success of American innovation is largely due to the failure of our education system. Compared to what I've seen in the Village, American students don't respect their teachers and they don't learn what they're supposed to learn. As a result, Americans have less respect for dogma and authority. So when they get to college, and they have an idea that contradicts what their professor says, they don't automatically think their idea is wrong; it could be the professor who's wrong. If you don't think the professor could be wrong, you don't innovate. As the rate of change increases, the professors are increasingly wrong.


  1. I agree with your idea that innovation is a product of resistance to dogma. At its heart, innovation is simply finding new ways of solving old problems. But I disagree with the statement that the success of American innovation can be contributed to the failure of the education system. In fact, I think it's the opposite. There is a conscious effort in American education to produce critical thinkers. My high school experience was filled with teachers deliberately trying to teach me how to think, not what to think. Because of the institutionalized pressure on academics to perpetuate long standing traditions of thought in their field, this happens less at universities. But it does happen. And even in academia, students have a means of recourse when they feel they've been graded unfairly because of the professor's ideological biases. Now, it's true that many students don't bother or aren't aware of it. But its existence is a testament to the intellectual flexibility of the American education system.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm far from idealistic about this issue. And I recognize that intellectual deviants have a hard time getting their work published or media play in general. But difficult does not mean impossible. So the long and short of it is that I think you're short changing American educators (and education in general) when you assume that the benefits which arise from the system are merely unintended consequences.

  2. While I am almost in complete agreement with your conclusion, I don't really find memorisation largely useless and harmful. On the contrary, I find it particularly useful in the arts, such as literature and poetry. The memorisation of poems not only allows us to develop some sort of aesthetic temperament which is best suited for friendship and romantic love, it may even enhance our appreciation of some sceneries in the natural world and life in general.

    Memorisation of poems or phrases in literature, of course, doesn't necessarily lead us to understand them, but it gives a sort of temperament which we will realise until we reach a certain stages of life. Memorisation is not a necessity, but I don't think one should neglect its importance in education.

    Moreover, memorisation doesn't necessarily lead us to believe the same things. We don't take things as absolute truths when we memorise them. It doesn't destroy our ability to think critically.

    But I think memorisation is useful only in the arts. I don't find it particularly useful in other realms of knowledge. As to history, I do think the study of history is important. And I believe that more or less involves some degree of memorisation. It may no longer be relevant to predict the future, however, history also allows us to grasp human nature. Human nature has been pretty much the same since ancient times. History shouldn't limit its usefulness for just predicting the future. It also gives depth and stability in thoughts.

    And I agree with Phuong that it's not the failure of the American educational system that contributes to the success of American innovation, but rather, it's the success of the system. But in general, I think western education resembles this tradition of critical thinking.

    There's one more thing I would like to point out is that being able to challenge your teachers does not necessarily mean you are disrespecting your teachers. And I am not quite sure what you mean by "they don't learn what they are supposed to learn".


    P.S. I am only opposed to the extreme emphasis on math and memorisation rather than memorisation in general, if you know what I mean.

  3. Wiliam, I'm not saying we shouldn't remember things. Just that we shouldn't memorize. I remember a lot from history, but aside from a few bad history teachers in high school, nobody made me "memorize" anything. We naturally remember things that are important to us. Things that aren't important to us, require us to "memorize." For example, I know which that Germany and Italy were on one side in WWII and that France and England were on the other side. But I never "memorized" that. I know that because those facts are attached to other relevant facts about WWII.

    As for literature, I guess there is some utility to memorizing poetry, though I would certainly de-emphasize memorization if I were teaching a literature class.

    I think you went to a good high school. I did too. In the schools I taught at in the Denver Public Schools, critical thinking was not part of the curriculum, and students were not learning what was on the curriculum. Unfortunately, the bad schools are more typical than the good schools in the States, which is why the non-poor Asian and European countries typically outperform the US on math and science tests.

  4. Wesley,

    Because it seems almost as if you are saying history is useful only for predicting the future. I don't think history should be memorised either, but I think it involves some degree of memorisation when it comes to dates, names, and places. That was just a response to the history part.

    As to only unimportant things require us to memorise, I don't think that's true. Take the case of poetry. A basic knowledge of poetry is quite important to us, but we don't naturally remember poems. That's why I think even important things require us to memorise sometimes.


  5. Well, I don't really remember much of the English-teacher-approved stuff, but I've committed a lot of poetry to memory, mostly hip hop. I remember the stuff that has meaning for me effortlessly (after some repeated exposure). If I have to struggle to remember it, maybe it's not worth remembering?

    Here's an example of some poetry that I have memorized, because it was meaningful to me given what was going on in the world. This is from 2002, not too long after the occupation of Iraq began. (This is the comments section, so I can post random hip hop quotes and it won't bother people, right?)

    Madvillain, "Strange Ways" verse 2:

    They prey four times a day, they pray five,
    Who wears the strings when it's time to survive?
    Some will go of their own free will to die,
    others take 'em with you when they blow sky high.

    What's the difference?
    All you get is lost children,
    while the bosses sit up behind their desks and cost billions
    to blast humans in half
    into calves and arms

    Only one side is allowed to have bombs.

    It's like makin a soldier drop his weapon,
    shootin him, and tellin him to get to steppin.

    Obviously, they came to portion up his fortune,
    Sounds to me, like that old robbery extortion.

    Same game, can't reform 'em.


  6. Memorization Vs Creativity



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