Remembering the Forgotten

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

For many, memory is the plague of existence. Striking the perfect balance between recollecting and forgetting must be the perfect method for happiness.

Or maybe remembering everything is the way to happiness. The more you know, the more you can make sense of the world, identify patterns, and navigate existence.

Or maybe forgetting is the way to happiness. Live in each moment as if none came before, living for the moment and perhaps the ones that will follow.

Memory is a tree. The roots are understanding, respect, and appreciation. The branches are the broad concepts, and the leaves are the details. That's why when you sat in school, desperately trying to cram facts about the Revolutionary War into your head ten minutes before your test, the outcome may have been suboptimal.

It's impossible to locate leaves without first knowing the branch it's attached to. And it's hard to truly find that branch without locating the tree it's attached to, and the roots it's formed. Memorization is the final step in the mastery of a complete body of knowledge, but in schools it's often treated as the first step.

It's a familiar tune, the criticism that we too often ask our students "what?" instead of "why?" The true process of learning starts with first gaining an appreciation for the topic, making connections, and providing context for seemingly enormous problems. These are the roots. Then we begin to dissect the mechanisms of conflict and resolution, progress and prevention. These are the branches. Then, if you're lucky, you might narrow down the specifics and remember the exact date of the Boston Tea Party. More likely than not, it'll be much easier to recall the date against the backdrop of a deep understanding of the events of the year, the conflict, and its path. Context is everything.

But for many learners, the tree is built backwards. Rote memorization of facts and events try to place leaves on a tree that does not yet exist.

We seem to ignore this in education. But it's ultimately not my place to criticize. In a system that's focused on product rather than process, educators undoubtedly feel pressure to make certain sacrifices to get through a prescribed curriculum.

And that is why you will forget this post, like the countless books you may have read in school. Forgetting and remembering share opposite sides of the same coin, and their impacts reach much further than the classroom. There is so much I want to say about the forgotten, but there are too many losses and not enough words.

Because memorization is so much more than recollection of facts. To me, it's confirmation of reality itself. Like I said before, memorization is the final step, after understanding and comprehension. That's why we look at life much more like a narrative than a random, unrelated series of events. You're most likely to remember events that affirm your notions of who you are, or feel like they fit into the core narrative of your life.

But I believe every fact, event, and experience is an important part of you, and if you know your roots, even the tiniest details can find a way to fall into place.

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