Is memorization really unnecessary?

This post refers back to the post (below) of May 14, 2010.

In that post, I mentioned Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia) and his article Individual Knowledge and the Internet.  Sanger analyzes three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.  "First is the idea that the instant availability of knowledge online makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary."  (The other two strands will be examined more fully in later posts.) 

This view of memorization tends to substitute the Internet as a resource for individual learning and knowledge.  Sanger cites statements by Don Tapscott and David Dalrymple to the effect that in the future "we will be relying increasingly on the Internet as an extension or prosthesis of our memory."  His image of a "mental prosthesis" is very vivid.

Sanger counters that this claim belies "any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge."  How can one know anything unless one has remembered it, and does not memory at some point require memorization –the conscious act of committing to memory?  Educationalists are possibly referring to unnecessary, rote memorizing –dull repetition "often without experience or understanding."

But what counts as unnecessary, as trivial? (The history of the term "trivial" –from the trivium referring to the three ancient or medieval artes liberales: grammar, rhetoric, and logic–reveals an interesting story for another post).  This is both a slippery question and a deep one.  Knowledge is necessary to ask more questions: Sanger's example that the date 1066 for the Battle of Hastings means nothing to a child, who lacks any historical knowledge, and becomes memorable only as the impact of that Battle is absorbed.  "Actually having a knowledge of understanding about [a] topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that."

Absorbing new knowledge always relies upon previously absorbed knowledge.  There is a chicken-and-egg here: you need to know something in order to know more.  A regular trope of liberal education is that people should "learn how to learn."  Some then extend this trope to claim that since knowledge is changing so fast, and today's children will have to reinvent their knowledge base multiple time, memorizing facts and figures is a waste of time." (Don Tapscott)  This is an old and stale argument –that progress renders a knowledge of past fact and figures useless.

Tapscott's argument presupposes that new knowledge either replaces or renders pointless old knowledge.  This is occasionally the case, but rarely.  Have advances in genomics, nuclear physics, nanotechnology, or linguistics really replaced far more basic skills of careful attention to texts, and master of a vast body of essential facts and points of view that undergird new acquisition of new knowledge. 

The key here is Tapscott's dimissive adjective rote memorization –dull, pointless, and mechanical.  Perhaps Tapscott will someday be operated upon by a surgeon who has not bothered with the rote memorization of human anatomy, and in that event, I wish Tapscott well.  Just because some instances of primary-school memorization in the past has been dull, pointless, and mechanical does not mean that memorization as a skill is pointless, dull, and mechanical.  It might be vital.  There objection that there is so such thing as "the basics" is ridiculous.  If human anatomy is not basic for a surgeon, then what is?

Sanger's point: "the only way to being to know something is to have memorized it."  Perhaps not absolutely in every minor detail!  Memorization is gateway to internalizing knowledge, really making a part of one's walking-around mentality, stock of images, living performative skills.  And it is work.  And digital resources can assist but not replace it.  And the internet as a whole will not replace it.