Names And Things, Understanding And Remembering

Humans, if they are to function as intelligent beings, must trust their abilities to comprehend and judge. And their ability to do that rests upon their cognition – their reasoning – operating in ways that don’t overburden and misdirect them. Without that, they are doomed to confusion, overload and self-doubt over all their lives.

Unfortunately, the roots of traditional education work against natural processes. And so, both parents and independent educators need to turn this around, teaching children in ways that develop their natural operations rather than subduing and excluding them.

I am trying not to be flamboyant, but I’m not finding a softer way of saying this that doesn’t turn into a lie. The fact is that modern education is organized around the needs of those who sit at the tops of hierarchies, and not around the needs of children. For the good of the human species, this needs to change. Now.

Memorize And Repeat

One of the more important short phrases of the past thousand years came from Francis Bacon, who said, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” What he meant was this:

Nature simply is. So, if we wish to use it, we must first accept it as it is.

That is precisely the first choice we must make for the education of children. We must develop what they are, not try to shove them into contrary molds, like that of the obedient drone, taking orders and robotically pursuing them.

Without any serious argument, the standard model of educating children for the past century and more has been “memorize and repeat.” We all know this model, whereby children are given a set of facts to remember, and which they are subsequently tested upon. Those who memorize well get good grades; those who fail to memorize get failing grades.

There is some utility in remembering things, of course, but this model is precisely the wrong way to get it. Memorize-and-repeat is a good model for computers; it is a contrary model for organisms like us. Let me restate that for clarity:

Memorize-and-repeat is unnatural to us. We sensed that as schoolchildren, but the rest of the world was rigged against us, and so we accepted that we were deficient.

But we weren’t deficient; we were, instead, being forced into a contrary model. Now, those of us who are able to comprehend this need to prevent it happening to our children. Yes, there will be times when remembering things matters most, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

What, then, is the alternative model? Most of us can imagine nothing else than the old one.

The answer is an old one with a tremendous pedigree: First, seek understanding.

What we understand, we remember; and lists of empty facts are of little use. When a child grasps a concept you can see their face light up, as their mind opens and sees. This is true education, and it does not come from rank memorization. As psychiatrist Boris Sidis wrote while “modern education” was forming:

Don’t try to memorize. Just understand, then you can’t help but memorize.

Memorize-and-repeat is a mechanical model, suited to machines, and especially to computers. We, however, are not machines; we are organisms… which is more.

Again, let me make this as clear as I can:

Every healthy human is a natural-born creator. To train such beings in obedience and repetition, to punish them for free and creative thought, is to damage them worse than the feet of ancient Chinese women were damaged by binding.

Children love to learn. That is the flow of energy that we need to use – “obeying nature,” in Bacon’s terms – and not to fight.

Any system of education that fights the inborn processes of human learning, is a system to walk away from.

None of this is to say that children are automatically pure and should be allowed to follow every wild impulse they experience. But it is to say that children are nascent creators, not robots, and that they should be educated as such.

Names And Things

Along with the memorize-and-repeat fetish comes a religious devotion to names and categories… to abstracts rather than concretes.

One of the great object lessons in this difference was physicist Richard Feynman. His raw brainpower was significantly less than that of many other physicists, but he stood out as something of a magician among them, because his thinking was far less bound than most of theirs. As his friend (and cognitive scientist) Marvin Minsky put it,

There was nothing unusual about him at all – except that he didn’t have very many bugs… One of the troubles with trying to understand new things is that we all have preconceptions; we’re screwed up in one way or another. When Feynman faced a problem, he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks, and saying, “Now, what have we got here?” … He was the least stuck person I have ever known.

And a major component of Feynman being “less stuck” was that he always tried to understand the thing itself, not to think through a structure of categories and names. That is, not to think as schools teach children to think. Here’s a passage from a publication on teaching physics that Feynman wrote:

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

What I’m advising here is for parents and other serious educators to drop memorization, lists of names and other forms of mere data. I’m advising them to teach understanding… to teach efficient and natural methods of understanding and the thrill of discovery.

Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about, again from Feynman:

My father taught me to notice things, and one day I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it that children pull around. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pops, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and suddenly stop, it rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?”

That,” he said, “nobody knows. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and that things that are standing still tend to stand still until you push on them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia,’ but nobody knows why it’s true.”

Now that’s a deep understanding: he didn’t just give me a name. He knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

That is a proper lesson in teaching children, and it’s something we need to incorporate into our teaching, whether it be bedtime stories or physics.


A great deal more could be said about this, but I think we’ve covered the essential points.

Children need to be taught in ways that nurture and direct the best aspects of their nature. They are not little savages that must be regimented and subdued; they are natural-born creators that must be guided toward maturity.

Yes, children, like ourselves, have unfortunate inheritances and unruly impulses, and these also must be trained. But their fundamental components make them nascent creators and more.

Our education of these beings must be built upon what they fundamentally are… accepting nature rather than fighting it. And that necessarily begins at home.


Paul Rosenberg