June 5, 2005

Ethnicity, spelling, and "rote" memorization.

Why were the top four contestants at the National Spelling Bee all of Indian ancestry? It's hard to analyze the phenomenon without offending anyone, but John Berger has a go at it in the NYT Week in Review:
Interviews with those winners, many who are the children of seamstresses or small-time shopkeepers, reveal that to bring the glow of accomplishment into their parents' spare lives, they will sacrifice television viewing and socializing to work on agonizingly slow and complicated experiments.

But Indians brought to spelling mastery some particular advantages, said Madhulika S. Khandelwal, an Indian immigrant who directs the Asian American Center at Queens College. Their parents or grandparents were usually educated, often as scientists or engineers; their parents generally spoke English and appreciated the springboard powers of education.

Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland, the kind needed to master lists of obscure words that easily stump spell-checker programs. They do not regard champion spellers as nerds.

By 1993, the North South Foundation, based outside of Chicago and devoted to making sure Indians here do as well in English as in math, set up a parallel universe of spelling bees. Now 60 chapters around the country hold such contests, according to its founder, Ratnam Chitturi.

They become a minor-league training ground for the major league 80-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was started by The Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to promote "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."

The enthusiasm has spread. There are now chat rooms and blogs where Indians discuss spelling. Stories about the contests are featured prominently in community newspapers.

(Blogging about spelling? I'd love to read that.)

What are we to make of this idea that some ethnic groups are more "comfortable" with rote learning than others? Is rote learning an unpleasant ordeal that some groups will tolerate, or can rote learning be a pleasure with intrinsic value? Why do Americans with distant immigrant ancestry think we need to structure education to spare our kids any contact with rote learning? We get so involved in thinking of our kids as creative and independently analytical that perhaps we deprive them of the opportunity to experience the joy of building their memorization powers.

Don't you sometimes undertake a memorization project just for fun? I do! Why shouldn't we think our kids would actually like doing memory exercises some of the time? Why do we always have to throw in the pejorative word "rote" when talking about memorization? Why don't we appreciate memorization as a beautiful human accomplishment?

Memory! What is more profoundly human?

And it is not merely memory that wins the spelling competition, it is analysis. The best spellers take the things they know -- root words and spelling conventions of different languages of origin -- and figure out how to spell words they don't know. We Americans of distant immigrant ancestry value analytical skills so much, but you need something in your mind to analyze, so memory is a crucial component of these intellectual activites we think are so important.

Let's build memory and be proud of it!


tommy said...

A lot of people seem to believe that rote memorization isn't really learning and therefore try to stay away from it when teaching. While I agree you can memorize things without understanding them (once upon a time I could recite a passage in Latin, I took it on faith that it said what I was told it did, but for all I know it could have been the teacher's laundry list), it is a system that has been proven to work.

Usually when someone gets started on rote memorization isn't learning I ask them "When was the last time you forgot the alphabet?"

Of course this is all somewhat fresh in my mind since the school system here tries to teach the multiplication tables without teaching the kids to memorize them. We finally told our son just memorize them, your life will be easier.

Slac said...

I think our cultural hostility towards memorization has its root in the notion that such things are more efficiently (and inexpensively) accomplished by computers and, therefore, increasingly useless in a student's repertoire of marketable skills.

What this has to do with ethnicity and Indians is plain. There's a saying, and I'm sure I'm misquoting it, "if your job isn't being outsourced to India, it's being replaced by a computer." That's because the older your job gets, the more it can be standardized and trained to someone without credentials, or mechanized into a contraption.

For economic and technological reasons, Asians and computers are both sources for the same solution. So, both are evolving in similar directions, refining similar desired traits.

The question remains, why do Americans hate rote memorization? Even if it is not as valuable in the job market, it certainly can't hurt, right? It can if you're raised in a Christian tradition and taught that computers don't have souls, so that when you do the work of a computer, you're denying your true nature. Asian religions have no such spiritual restrictions. So memorization is much less likely to be considered base.

On another note, Ann, you might like this Wired article about the US Memory Championship.

Tom McMahon said...

I had a typical American education, not much on memorization. Then I went through the US Navy's Nuclear Power/Submarine training: They were quite insistent on you knowing where every freaking valve, switch, breaker, pump, and you-name-it was, what it did, and what would happen if it failed suddenly. That was a long time ago, so I've forgotten all those valves, switches, breakers, and pumps, but the ability to memorize useful stuff remains to this day.

David Manus said...

I play in a local band, and we play a lot of contemporary music, stuff I haven't heard for years and years like the classic stuff, so its difficult to learn all the lyrics to a lot of the songs because they aren't ingrained into my brain like the old songs. I've still found the best way to memorize them quickly is to write them out in long-hand, a method my Mom taught me back in school for memorizing spelling or recitation pieces. Its like it becomes more indellibly written on your brain if you write it out, you can picture the actual words written out.

This doesn't work for me when I type, I think because I type somewhat automatically, without thinking about the letters I'm typing.

An interesting aside, why do many people mistype words the same way? Like I notice many people invert the "t" and "h" or other common mistypes: teh wiht jsut - are a few I see constantly. It's weird.

Ron said...

Nietzsche, in his short essay on "The use and abuse of history", says that memory is what seperates us from animals...it allows us to make "history."

Joan said...

Even if it is not as valuable in the job market, it certainly can't hurt, right? It can if you're raised in a Christian tradition and taught that computers don't have souls, so that when you do the work of a computer, you're denying your true nature.

Christianity has been around for 2000 years, give or take, but computers have only had an influence in the general workforce in the past 25 years or so. In specialized industries, they've been in use much longer, but even going back to 1960s you wouldn't find too many computers outside of government and academic research centers.

The idea that memorization is somehow a computer's work and therefore "denies our true nature" is frankly baffling to me. It's the most creative excuse I've ever heard to avoid learning something. Memorization is the bedrock of the oral tradition through which Christianity spread, since books and printing were so rare and expensive, and few people could read. I would say that memorizing scripture is doing God's work.

I am pleased that my children's school uses memorization where appropriate. They have to learn "math facts" and spelling lists among other things. The organization or presentation may not be exactly the same, but the effect is: memorization of basic facts allows the children to move onto more complicated tasks with a solid foundation.

Mark Kaplan said...

I believe that the common typos are a result of the fingers reaching particularly keys faster than they can reach other keys. The brain sends the signal to hit the "t" , then the "h" and then the "e" but the left middle finger can get to the "e" faster than the left index finger can move sideways over to the "h" and so the "e" is executed first.

F15C said...

slac, your comment about Christians believing that doing the work of computers is denying their true nature is completely absurd, and one has to wonder why you would formulate such a simplistic fallacy in the first place.

Obviously, computers do far more than memorization. They add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They display visuals of both the concrete and abstract, they can show us views of things in ways that are difficult or impossible otherwise. They can operate robots to build cars and perform surgery. Computers do far, far more than simply memorize.

By your 'logic' then, doing just about anything violates Christian values vis-a-vis soulless computers. Your attempt to equate Christianity with 'why America hates memorization' is beyond ludicrous. America has been a predominately Christian nation for most of our history with many/most of our values based on Christian teachings (I'm not trying to ignore the Judeo influences they are strong and positive, I'm just focusing on Christianity here).

The people of America, whose basic values have been formed in large part by Christian ideals, before *inventing* the computer, airplanes, and too many other significant things to list obviously had to memorize tremendous amounts of data to do their jobs. But, by your logic predominately Christian America as a whole should have been so stupid as to not be able to lead the world in scientific and other academic disciplines.

Newsflash - we did, and we do.

Clearly the US has become less influenced (especially in schools) by Christianity over the past three to four decades. Has the quality of education risen as well over those decades? Absolutely not. The children that are mentioned in the above article could be atheists and if they still worked as hard at learning how to spell difficult words, and had effectively the same values orientation about academic achievment, they would do every bit as well.

This is an issue of fundamental societal values around academic achievment and hard work. These values are instilled by families (or not), and supported by schools (or not) and span religious orientations. Your contention about Christianity being anti-memorization is grasping and ridiculous.

Ann Althouse said...

Interesting discussion! Memorization is complicated. We think of it as both human and inhuman. Interesting to bring up the oral tradition in response to the comments about computers. People once thought writing things down would spoil our powers of memorization, but writing things down or having them in a computer puts more things within reach. Still you have to get them into your head to start to think about them. But if they are written down maybe we think we don't need to retain anything, we can just look it up again the next time. Still, that's pretty time consuming, and it limits your ability to put several things together or to avoid always starting at square one.

I'm not an expert on the education of the young or on education techniques generally (though I am a teacher), but it seems to me that variation in exercises is a good idea and that memorization belongs in the mix and shouldn't be impugned as dehumanizing and rote.

jar said...

I find this conversation rather interesting as I found that as a person who memorized everything growing up and did very well at school I did not know how to use what I had memorized. When my boys started school I was pleased that though there was some memorization, a lot of school involved critical thinking. School also involved no grades through 2nd grade which take a little getting used to but I encouraged my children just to learn for learning sake. Did it work out? For the most part yes. A lot of education is learning the rules. English has them as well as math and science. History is harder because it is almost straight memorization though you have to be able to put that in some sort of context to show that you know what you have learned. Still a lot of questions in history are multiple choice, fill in the blank or matching. My children were in grade school during the "lets not teach them phonics rules" which let them down.
However, in 9th and 11th grades I don't think that not relying on memorization has let them down. The 11th grader has switched from Spanish to German and has learned more in one year than he learned in two years of Spanish as he was taught the rules and it was taught without textbook and in mostly total immersion (he has yet to write a note card). And that child did win the spelling bee in his school in fifth grade - no studying for it.

Troy said...


Christians might not work with computers because they have no soul???

I don't watch American Idol because it has no soul... post Richie Cunningham Happy Days has no soul, color (aka Fyfe-less) Andy Griffith Show has no soul! Those things deny humankind's true nature.

Otoh... my Dell laptop is sentient -- a very soulful thing.

Dave said...

Every job that pays well in America requires memorization. Some things about integrals, organic chemistry, medicine, etc. do not reduce down to systems.

k said...

I had to laugh about the comment about Christians, memorization, and computers! I go to a Baptist church where we still give Sunday school recognition awards for the kids who have memorized every "Bible Verse For The Day" for a whole year of Sundays!! Plus, I am a systems analyst!! I'm rollin' on the floor (in the aisles?)!

F15C said...

I am certainly no expert on memorization, but I am an expert on computational systems. Human memorization is a powerful adjunct to the use of computers as tools. Computers and data storage systems 'memorize', manipulate, and index, data that is too mundane and numerous for humans.

Properly applied, computers extend our memory and cognitive abilities much like hydraulics extend our strength and endurance.

From my perspective, memorization is imperative to human accomplishment - no matter what our religion is or isn't. As our work and tools evolve *what* we memorize may change somewhat, but not the basic need for memorization.

Bruce Hayden said...

In response to the question about typing, I am in the middle of a book on Cognition. Typing, in an experienced typist, is one step above reflexes. Each character press is considered a ballistic movement. These differ from many movements because they don't involve feedback. In other words, an experienced typist types without feedback, and his speed is based on this efficiency - he (actually, his "executive") can fire off key strokes without waiting to see what is going to happen.

I suspect that what is happening with ht instead of th is that the two are firing off so close together that sometimes the t completes before the h. And, as I pointed out, this all works, because experienced typists don't depend on feedback.

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten into memorization yet, esp. of the kind used in spelling, as opposed to learning motor programs, such as we use in typing, driving a car, walking, etc.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am one of those who has always had a hard time memorizing stuff. In most cases, I made up for that by understanding the underlying structure much more quickly than most others.

It may be that I just never learned the tricks to the trade - what works for me. And probably at 54, I may never learn such.

The few times that memorizing lists has been critical for me, I failed miserably. I remember somewhere around 7th grade trying to learn all the geologic eras. And then in law school, my contracts prof had us learn a bunch of case cites, and graded us on how we could regurgiate them, even if off point (which is why I thought it absurd).

I do remember taking a math test in my mid twenties where I had to do some trig. But I couldn't remember the formulas. No problem. Just rederived them on the spot, applied them, and aced the test.

Bruce Hayden said...

Also note that a decade or so, they were bemoaning that many of the top spelling finishers were Vietnamese.

It may be that the Indians are newer immigrants now, and thus, more willing to do the grunt work needed to excell here.

gyc said...

For a more humorous take on the subject, you might want to check out this article on ESPN.com.

amba said...

Do you know about the ars memoria, the memorization technique of the ancient world and Renaissance where you created a real or imaginary palace in your mind and associated each point or phrase or number you had to remember with a particular feature or furnishing of the palace? Here's a link about it, and here's a list of fascinating links (quite a few of which are dead now, but many are not) about the advanced art of memory.

amba said...

And another thing about spelling: it may be genetic. Most people either can do it or can't (in English, that is, where there are so many fossil Germanic oughs stuck silently in sleek words' throats). It has to do with remembering a word auditorily only, or both visually and auditorily. In my family, some of the siblings can do it and some can't. I'm one of the ones who can (I was the Lee County, Florida spelling champion of 1958), and I've always regarded it as an idiot-savant talent.

amba said...
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Anthony said...

With names like 'Madhulika S. Khandelwal' is it any wonder they're so good at spelling?

Slac said...

After I made that post I suddenly became very busy and didn't check Althouse for a while. I had no idea I made a spark!

Please notice I didn't bring up Christianity as the primary reason. It was secondary to economics.