Rote memorization, or killing a child’s potential?

August 18, 2006

Althouse tees off on the content and tone of an article in the New York Times that describes a school in the United States where young boys spend nine hours a day in rote memorization of the Qur’an.

During my law school time our informal study group had one guy who could study the tarnation out of any topic we had.  Tom got his high school education in a Catholic system, and he had four years of Latin.  It wasn’t exactly rote memorization, but it was a lot of work dealing with a system of writing that is difficult to master, at best, and language-logic defying at worst.  In the group, we determined (over a few fermented grain beverages) that this experience had well prepared Tom to deal with the oddities of legal thought.  Of course, it may have been just that Tom had learned to study with all those stern taskmasters who taught the Latin courses.

Readers here know I think school should grab a student’s interest whenever possible to improve the educational value of any topic offered.  Rote memorization has a place — I required history kids to memorize the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble to the Constitution last year — but it is a place in a larger menu of educational offerings. 

Howard Gardner claims there are different domains of genius available to everybody.  Of the eight (maybe nine) domains he has identified, how many of them are neglected by pure, rote memorization of an untranslated text? 

Ann Althouse is right.  One question we need to consider is, how many others were outraged by that article in the Times, and for the right reasons?

Update:  P. Z. Myers also found the article’s description of the school troubling.  He gets a lot more traffic than I do — a lot more comments are available there, at Pharyngula, “This is not a school.”

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