16 February 2013

On Memory and the Life of Maps

There are so many childhood objects that leave indelible marks as one grows up, from the microscope that gives you a secret window into invisible worlds, to the medical kit which made you a superhero with the power to fix people.  In his articles, The gears from my childhood, renowned MIT professor and educational technologist, Seymour Papert, explains how playing with and loving gears gave him a conceptual model that lasted a lifetime.

Upon undertaking a mental hunt for influential childhood objects myself, I ended up in a kind of serenade to maps and memory.  Rote memorization is nearly tabooed in these days of Active Learning and Google access (and with good reason).  But what I learned from maps is that, perhaps, there's a modest place for it yet...

I always loved maps.  I had many dreams in which I could simply hop from Africa over to South America with a skip over the ocean.  I felt there was inherent value in knowing where things were in the world and I enjoyed learning about it spatially.  So much so, that when I got bored one day in class, it seemed sensible to turn to the back of the book and stare at the world map until I memorized it as best I could.

Ironically, of late, people everywhere (including many at the University of Cambridge Union Panel discussion I attended last week) are saying it’s no longer important to memorize things.  Of course, rote memorization is a tedious throwback to old patterns of schooling, but I think we would be desperately foolish to imagine there’s never a place for it.  Connectivism argues that knowledge in the modern world is far more about knowing where to find information than it is about having to remember the information itself.  While I agree--certainly, the skill of information sourcing is increasingly critical--I can also point to endless examples of the utility of memorizing in my life as well as in the creativity and insight of others.
The day I sat there doing my best to memorize the world map would smack of the ridiculous to many these days.  Why memorize what you can so easily Google? Why would you waste time on that?  But for the rest of my life, an ability to know where things were, was not simply something in which I could take pride, but more importantly, it gave me a closet full of mental hooks upon which to hang information and understanding about the world that would otherwise have slipped through the cracks in my brain finding nothing upon which to adhere.  When I heard news stories of politicians, of conflicts, of bravery or destruction, instead of whizzing past me like a gust of wind, they accumulated and enriched my picture of cultures and places and human nature.
If someone told me a story about Mali or Papua New Guinea it immediately meant something to me, if only because I had a mental image of simple lines and shapes on a map to which those words referred.  Such is the state of American geography education, that I found that friends from different countries were relieved and surprised when I reflected some basic understanding of their origins.  Surely in a world as increasingly globally connected and diverse as this, there is some value in that?
I remember being profoundly interested when the Berlin wall came down.  It was both an excitement and a betrayal.   The idea that maps were mutable came as a shock.  That borders could be redrawn at the will of a dictator or an insurrection undermined the strong sense I had that this thing that I bothered to emblazon in memory was truth, stable and authoritative.   Naiive disbelief in the removal of a line on a map became a starting point for learning about things like dictatorship, hardship, wars, and the imperfection and adaptability of human knowledge.
Other things that would seem crazy to memorize by today’s standards, like the lyrics to songs and the names of presidents, provided me with other valuable mental frameworks for organizing and constructing new knowledge.  
They gave me roadmaps through history upon which I could place milestones and therefore make connections to contemporaneous things.  The movie The History Boys seems to speak volumes of what a gift it can be to have great works of poetry memorized to draw on for conceptualizing, assimilating, and expressing ideas.
While for some it’s poetry or number sequences and for others it’s maps,
I don’t see how we can ever make unlikely connections if we don’t have things we carry around with us, available even if the power goes out, incubating, transfiguring and transforming us, ever so quietly, even in our sleep.  You can’t sit there in a preverbal state or stream of consciousness hoping to catch your next brilliant idea as it emerges, by pausing to look it up on Google.
Well not yet anyway.  I suppose I should just give it a few years.  If we can at some point plug directly into an internet of all things, then I’ll pack away my picket sign and stop lobbying for the modest role of some memorization in our creative lives.
Is memorization outdated?  Tell us what you think.