Why Most People Think Memorizing Historical Facts is Useless (and Why It Actually Is) 5

Posted by jcnnghm Tue, 09 Feb 2010 18:46:00 GMT

An article, Why Most People Think Memorizing Historical Facts is Useless (and Why It Actually Isn't), was making the rounds yesterday. I strongly believe that the author is wrong, memorizing historical facts is useless, and so are History classes in general, as they are taught in the United States.

Knowing who someone was, where something happened, and when it happened are all essentially useless unless you know what happened, and why it happened. Unfortunately, I was never able to comprehend why I really enjoyed reading about history, but why I hated history classes. I figured out exactly what the problem was when I first read my favorite book of all time, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. In The 48 Laws of Power, Greene goes to great lengths to describe what leaders throughout history did to obtain, or lose, their power, and why they acted in the way that they did. The really fascinating part about history is all in the why. Why did they do that?

As History is taught in schools today, it's just a series of titles connected to events. Match Year X with Event Y. It is worthless. If you teach why's, and not just the who's and when's, all that other stuff falls into place, because it's contextually vital. If you care about why something happened, you'll understand what happened and who the major players were.

By far my favorite "character" in Greene's book, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Talleyrand), was never mentioned in any history class I have ever taken. Talleyrand, a French diplomat, was intensely interesting, especially with respect to his interactions with Napoleon. Talleyrand actually collaborated with the British to allow Napoleon to escape from the island of Elba, which he had been exiled to after his failed invasion of Russia. Talleyrand firmly believed that Elba was too close, so he worked to convince the British that this was the case, and that if they let Napoleon escape now, he'd quickly enter a war where he'd be defeated and could be sent further away. Napoleon "escaped", and did indeed lead France into war again, where he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and was exiled off the coast of Africa for the remainder of his life.

The real tragedy is, I'd never heard of Talleyrand until I read Greene's book. In college, I was tasked with writing an essay on Napoleon in a European History class, and decided to cross out the question posed by the professor, and construct and answer my own. I couldn't remember the facts I was supposed to, but I could remember and construct an essay on Talleyrand, which was good enough for the professor to give me an A, noting that it's not usually a good idea to disregard essay questions unless you have something really interesting to write about.

If a story is interesting and relevant, because you understand why something happened, you'll remember what happened. It is a big part of why. Take, for example, the story of the con artist Victor Lustig, famous for selling the Eiffel Tower. Lustig was able to play on Al Capone's desire to interact with someone of integrity to con him out of $5,000, a rather brazen act. Lustig approached Capone and asked him to invest $50,000, which he promised to double. Lustig returned in 2 months, and returned the $50,000 to Capone, along with a story of the hard times he had fallen on. Capone was shocked, and told Lustig that he had expected him to either return $100,000, or nothing, and confessed that he knew he was a con artist. So impressed by Lustig's honesty, Capone gave him $5,000 to help with his situation. There never was any investment deal, Lustig left the money in a safety deposit box for the two months. The con was all a play on Capone, who longed to deal with a man of integrity, since he was constantly surrounded by those who had none. This story is easy to remember, because it's easy to see why the actors did what they did.

After reading Greene's book, I became convinced that history education is all wrong. Why things happen, and why people do what they do, is intensely interesting. When they happened is boring and irrelevant. Not teaching why things happened dilutes the value of history to such an extent that it's worthless as it is. It serves no purpose, it must be fixed or abandoned.

  1. Stephen Tue, 09 Feb 2010 21:04:10 GMT

    You know, the article which you strongly disagree with has the same conclusion as you have. (Perhaps you only read the title?)

    Either way, I enjoyed both articles.

  2. Justin Tue, 09 Feb 2010 21:10:23 GMT

    Yeah, that’s true for the most part. I really disagreed with the title though, since I don’t think that rout memorization is ever useful. The author of that post does seem to think it’s useful to memorize the facts, whereas I don’t. I think the facts are largely immaterial to understanding. In other words, you don’t have to know exactly when something happened to understand the context in which it occurred and why the event happened.

    It’s possible to memorize without understanding anything.

  3. Daniel Tue, 09 Feb 2010 21:42:13 GMT

    “It’s possible to memorize without understanding anything.”

    But it is not possible to understand without memorizing anything. Even in your examples, you have memorized numerous facts, such as names, places, etc. If you had memorized dates, you would be able to integrate these stories that you’ve enjoyed into the rest of your historical knowledge.

    This isn’t just true of history either. You can’t really understand Calculus, for example, without memorizing Taylor series, the definition of a limit, the fundamental theorem of calculus, etc. And if you plan to work in a scientific field, you’ll never discover anything unless you can recognize the things which you’ve memorized. For example, if Galileo hadn’t memorized his Greek geometry, he never would have concluded that all free projectiles follow parabolic trajectories.

  4. Justin Tue, 09 Feb 2010 21:47:58 GMT

    “But it is not possible to understand without memorizing anything.”

    Exactly, that was kind of the implied point. If you understand something, you don’t need to explicitly memorize it because you already know it.

    When I’m talking about memorization, I’m not talking about remembering things, I’m talking about the act of committing stuff to memory for no other reason than to be able to recall it. Many history classes can be completed without understanding anything, just by memorizing everything.

  5. Abhi Yerra Wed, 10 Feb 2010 04:37:05 GMT

    I’m writing my History thesis for my BA this semester and I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, high school history was essentially either indoctrination or largely useless.

    However, I have enjoyed my university’s program. One of the main things I learned is to not look at history as a series of events but as a discourse. In this discourse power and knowledge are functioning to create a mode of thinking in which an event occurs a i.e., leader rises, a leader falls, a rebellion was made plausible, etc. For example, take Gandhi. Gandhi everyone thinks uses non-violence as his method. In fact, Gandhi uses the notion of violence to his advantage. He knows that the British’s only method of control was the stick and they would not know what to do if the people did not use a violent revolt. So he uses that knowledge/power dynamic against the British and made the British look the part of oppressors. Though there are other factors at play which led to the actual independence, Gandhi and MLK are good examples of people using the notion of violence to their advantage.

    I feel you get a much better understanding not only of history, but yourself if you look at yourself in terms of how power/knowledge is working on. I recommend reading some works of Michel Foucault who discusses these. Looking at Historical theory and how history is what it is in this way I feel is most important than specific dates, etc.