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Inventive memorizing

The words invention and inventory enjoy a common root in Latin- a curious-seeming link. For we tend to think of an inventory as something inert and grey- a mere lists of goods; and we meanwhile esteem inventiveness as a free and imaginative capacity, colourful and alive. The two concepts thus seem to lie at opposite ends of our conceptual spectrum.

The separation in our minds between invention and organisation is, I think, regrettable: it engenders confusion. First of all, it causes us to forget how an inventory is an imaginative achievment in its own right that generates associations and shapes thinking. Secondly, it makes it difficult for us to perceive the vital role that knowledge, hard work and a community of creators play in any decent invention.

Most regrettable of all, though, is that this false distinction between information-storage and information-use has led to the utter (and scandalous) absence of memory-techniques in our schools and universities. We (rightly) want people to be intelligent (inventiveness); we (wrongly) contrast this with their knowing how to remember (inventorizing). And to this confusion, we add a delusion -that our education system anyway encourages critical thinking.

The result is that we have an exam system that tests fact retention but pretends that it doesn’t; and we’ve combined this with a system of education that schools candidates who can’t even remember the facts.

What’s interesting about this is that it looks on the outside like a problem with pupils’ motivation. But blaming motivation (and typically, therefore, computer games or ’society’) is to mistake effect for cause. By low motivation, what we are describing is low levels of interest. And interest is not willed- it comes to us. That’s why we talk of passions. Our exam-system asks our children to be interested in a uninteresting task, assimilating facts. And it can’t provide interest by encouraging independent thought- because that isn’t possible the way these facts are taught- without instruction, without imagination and therefore effect.

This is why memory techniques would do so much to enhance education. For they accomplish three things at once. First, they enormously speed and improve learning; they accompish this, secondly, by systematically exploiting the way that we remember what we are interested in- and thus they are motivational. Lastly, they exploit the the close relationship between inventories and inventions, and by doing so they provide a realistic pathway for a child to turn him or herself, over time, into an independent thinker- which is the goal of the exercize.

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