inessential by Brent Simmons

Facts and Thinking

I was reading about Texas and the AP History course — and the thing I was bugged about wasn’t Texas. (The article doesn’t provide enough information to form an opinion.)

Instead, I was bugged by this statement:

The controversy stems from the recent overhaul of the AP test, administered by the New Jersey-based College Board, that was meant to de-emphasize memorization.

Lots of people are nodding their heads. Why memorize things? Of what value is knowing a bunch of dates and the names of dead generals?

The point of school is to teach us how to think, after all.

But that always sounds to me like people arguing that you could learn the rules of English grammar without learning any of the actual words. The facts — and, especially, the stories — of the world are its words. That’s our vocabulary. That’s what we think with and about.

It’s not a matter of memorization to know that World War I came before the Roaring Twenties, and that the Great Depression came next, and that World War II followed. There should be no way a high school graduate could be unsure of the sequence of events, and they should be able to get the decades right, even if they don’t recall, for instance, the exact date of the stock market crash (October 24, 1929).

They ought to know that the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II and our enemy later. And they ought to know that Germany fought a two-front war, and that Germany’s army wasn’t the first to run into trouble in Russia, and why. And they ought to know enough to be able to speculate as to why Germany hadn’t learned from the past.

Knowing the stories isn’t memorization. Once you know the stories you know how one thing causes another, how things are related and reflected, and you can think about the present and the future. And you end up knowing pretty well when things happened — because you know how things fit together — even if you don’t recall every single precise date and the names of every player. (Who assassinated Franz Ferdinand? I had to look it up. Gavrilo Princip.)

To “de-emphasize memorization” sounds like a thing everybody can agree on — except that I suspect it really means “we’ve made it so you don’t have to know what actually happened, which makes it easier for you to do well on the test, which makes us look good.”

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Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Temba, his arms wide.