I’m wondering if how much we can remember is related to what we become in life. Generally we think the careers we pursue are selected by interest, the ability to conceptualize the work, and talent. But what role does memory play? Does the ability to remember details accurately influence what we choose to do in life? Could engineers, surgeons, mathematicians, composers, physicists, become who they are without good memories? Could actors and singers work without the abilities to remember lines and songs? Could salesmen and politicians succeed without remembering people’s names. How well could people in law enforcement do their jobs without a knack for remembering faces and cases? Isn’t becoming a lawyer all about memorizing precedents and laws? Well, what about absent minded professors? Maybe to remember all the important facts of their discipline it’s vital to forget all the piddling practical things?
I can remember all the things I wanted to be as a kid, and looking back I can see I never had the memory skills to do those things. I became a programmer when I failed at being a scientist. And I’m only a so-so programmer. I have a certain knack for programming, but that’s because I can remember commands and algorithms to a degree. If I could have mastered mathematics I would have liked to have been an astronomer, or robot designer. My fantasy careers were to be another Robert A. Heinlein or Bob Dylan. I have great difficulty holding plot ideas in memory, and the only song I can remember is Happy Birthday, and I usually flub the 4th line.
Our whole K-12 educational philosophy is to prepare individual children to know everything that an ideal adult should know – as if everyone should be the same. We expect kids to memorize a body of knowledge we consider essential for a well rounded citizen, when in fact, everyone specializes, and everyone has varying levels of brain processing powers. Some people are Intel i7s, while others are Motorola 6502s.
The hot topic in education right now is the Common Core State Standards. The initiative’s mission statement says:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover. In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization. By focusing on the Common Core standards we can evaluate students, teachers and schools through comparisons. The assumption being if kids in school A rank higher than kids in school B, then teachers and administrators are doing a better job in school A. But what if everyone learns the same standards equally well, but one school does better than another? How much education comes from outside of the school? Does growing up in a well-to-do family confer more opportunity to learn? Or what if some kids have better parents or mentors that push practice and memorization? Education isn’t just about the particularly facts we learn.
There are only so many facts we can stuff into our brains. We grind through our school years cramming for tests, but how much of this essential knowledge is really essential later in life? In last month’s Harper’s Magazine Nicholson Baker wrote “Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II” – not available online, but nice summarized at Popular Science as “Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?” Baker pleads for us to abolish the Common Core State Standards for Algebra II because few people use it later in life, and many students suffer from studying it. But isn’t that true of most of what we studied in school?
What if pushing memory skills helps with careers? Advance math requires remembering years of previous mathematical techniques. Most of what you learn in school can be studied days before the test, but not advanced math. Passing Algebra II reflects great memory skills.
How successful in life we become is determined by how much we can remember. Kids who master Algebra II go on to become scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, lawyers – whether or not they actually need advance mathematics or not. The ability to remember and process complex concepts correlates well with success in many fields – and I think it’s because it reflect memory skills.
Also in the news was the Bullitt County 1912 Eighth Grade exam, that made 2013 smart people feel stupid. Not only could I not pass this 1912 test, but I doubt I could pass any 2013 Common Core tests. I read lots of books and consider myself reasonably educated, but if I had to rate my intelligence by tests then I’m a dummy. I love pop culture, but do miserably at trivia games. Facts just don’t stay in my head, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.
I’ve read dozens of books on the history of physics and cosmology, yet I doubt I could talk about this topic in anything but the vaguest way. I often write blog posts stuffed with facts that I hope to retain by writing about them, but never do. Some bits of information do stick, but I have no control over what facts get filed in permanent memory and what don’t, and whether or not I can recall the stored facts in a timely manner.
What I do is consume knowledge and shit out the solid facts, maybe digesting a bit of their nutriments, and I hope I become a bit wiser overall. My opinions will change but I can’t substantiate my beliefs with regurgitated references. My love of information is more akin to binging on sweets.
Knowing this makes me wonder why we spend so much money and effort forcing children to pass tests regarding knowledge they don’t retain. Obviously, a good education leaves a lot of knowledge sticking to the ribs of their brains, but a surprising amount gets immediately discarded. I do remember a fair amount of arithmetic but damn little algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and calculus. My guess is the old adage, “use it or loose it” applies. So anything I learned fifty years ago that’s still in my head is there because I’ve had to use it. So why not build an education system focused more on doing and less on testing?
Now that I’m retiring next month, I hope to study math again. I’ve always regretted not working harder at learning math, and I’m wondering if I use it again, will some forgotten aspects magically come back, or will I have to memorize the old facts all over again? My guess if I work at it for a year I’ll develop some skills I currently don’t have, but if I stop working at it, those same skills will quickly disappear. Whether or not I’ll find some hobbies that actually need math skills is another matter. I’ve always wanted to program some computer animation and that does take math. If I apply the math, I might remember more, and for longer.
Sure, I might discover I hit a math barrier quickly. I might not have the memory skills to go very far this second time around, but I am going to take a different approach. It won’t be to pass tests.
Are our minds more like a hard drive where we store files, or like a computer program where we load information into memory to process? We generally think of memory and mind as one, but what if that’s not true? Is my personality reflected in how I react to experiences, or how I remember them? Recently I fell in love with the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” sung by Joan Osborne. Do I love that song because of who I am, or because of the 1966 Jimmy Ruffin version of the song imprinted on my brain for life as a mood memory and listening to the new one stimulates that old memory?
Even after playing this song over a hundred times recently, I can’t remember the words, nor could I hum the melody. However, something has been recorded in my brain that remembers the mood of the original song. Hearing the Joan Osborne version pushes the same button in a deeply emotional satisfying way.
What’s weird, I’m obsessed with the song right now, but in a few weeks I’ll have completely forgotten it – until the next time I hear the music. Even when I want to preserve a memory, to hang onto a cherish feeling, I can’t. I supposed if I sang the song myself every day it would eventually become a part of me. And that might explain why I forget so much – I’m constantly consuming new songs, new books, new movies, new television shows.
There are limits to memory I can’t overcome, but I could master more facts if I was willing to narrow my consumption of new data. I’m a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next, with no memories of the last. Maybe if I tasted fewer flowers I’d remember more of them?
If humans were robots and we stored our memories in mechanical devices, we’d still have limitations, even if we could consciously control what we retained. I’ve always read about people with eidetic memories in awe. In my mind, they must be a superior species. Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how many facts we can maintain at our fingertips. We’ll never be robots, and most of us will never have photographic memories, but who we are is defined by our limitations of memory, and not what we remember.
I believe my hobby is blogging now because of the limitations of my memory. I can look up facts and quotes on the internet as needed. If I could remember lyrics, chords, notes and melodies, I’d be playing music as my hobby. If I could hold a lot of entangled concepts in my mind, I’d probably be writing novels. If I was good with trivia I’d spend more time with my wife going to trivia games. If I had a great memory, I’d probably be programming with languages that have large libraries of powerful functions. I’m really amazed at the synergy between my poor memory and using Google with writing blog posts. Even the length of the post is hitting the wall with how much I can conceptually handle at once.
I believe our memory abilities define what we choose to do. But I also believe that the limitations of my memory confines me in explaining this. I hope my memory power at least hints at what I want to say.
JWH – 9/17/13