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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

When I Go Into a Classroom...

When I go into a classroom, in order to get a dialogue going, I usually ask an uncomplicated question or two. Here’s one I’ve tried a few times: ”When did Christopher Columbus arrive in the Americas?” I ask. At first I was astonished when no one knew the answer to that question. Now I’m no longer surprised.

But I am disturbed, for several reasons. Yes, it makes clear the historical illiteracy of our time. But there is something else. It points to the rejection of memorization as a tool of teaching.

Every child once learned this simple ditty: “In fourteen ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Memorizing rhymes and poems used to be standard fare in schools, especially in the elementary grades. Almost any memory expert will tell you that rhymes help with memorization. My friends at Johns Hopkins CSOS (Center for the Social Organization of Schools) have written raps to collate with each of the A History of US books. Those basic rhymes are a fantastic way to get kids to remember the Presidents, or whatever.

Why bother? We don’t need to memorize anymore, I’m told. The computer world and the Internet have changed what we need to know. Our brains can focus on more important things.

But brain scientists question that. Memory still plays a major role in practical intelligence as well as in brain development. If you can’t pull much of anything from your mind, it does have a lot to work with when it activates its thinking process.

Now I have spent a lot of time writing books intended to make their readers process information and think critically. I’ve never supported the kind of teaching, especially in history, that is based on rote memorization of dates and facts. But there is a balance needed. Some things, like the multiplication tables, are worth memorizing. So are some of the rules of grammar. And so, too, a few key dates that provide chronological pegs on which to hang history’s stories.

As for poetry, the more you can commit to mind while you’re in elementary school, the more mental enjoyment you’ll have when you reach 40 and more.

1492? The Roman Empire in the East had gone from glory to decline after falling to the Ottomans in 1453. The last half of the 15th century is now seen as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. In western Europe powerful Portugal’s explorations were extending horizons; next door in Castile and Aragon (Spain), Isabella and Ferdinand were up and comers, especially after they married and combined their thrones. In 1478 they established the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The idea was to strengthen and control orthodox Catholicism. In 1492, going still further, all of Spain’s Muslims and Jews were ordered to leave the country (unless they converted); some of them seem to have helped finance Columbus, his three ships, and the band of convicts who were released from prison when they agreed to sail off into the unknown “ocean blue.” It’s a year to remember.
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