How Much To Know About History, How Much About Biology…?

Dear Beyond BT

I’m a BT for many years with a Masters Degree so I certainly see the value of a good education. The problem I’m facing is that while helping some memorization challenged children with their tests, I have become increasingly aware that there is a tremendous amount of trivial information that has to be memorized. I know personally that much of the history and science I had to memorize has proved to be useless from an information perspective.

So when my children ask why they have to know this, I’m often stumped and at a loss to provide motivational inputs.

What is the value of so much memorization?

Wouldn’t focusing on teaching our children analytical skills be time better spent?

If I really do think much of the memorization is not valuable, what should I tell my kids when asked, why they have to know this?

Thanks in Advance

29 comments on “How Much To Know About History, How Much About Biology…?

  1. Chaya, your comment illustrates beautifully the problem with rote learning, it’s not easy and it’s not effective.

    When the boys get into the secular subjects they also face this problem, except in general boys care much less about grades than girls.

    I do want to take this opportunity to mention the Goldhar Learning System which provides one solution to the rote learning challenge.

  2. Those who do not learn History are doomed to repeat it.

    One of the greatest refutations of the Theory of Evolution is the indescribable complexity of organic life, which is far to complex to have evolved through chance.

  3. Bob, I’m not sure what your opinion on rote learning is:

    1) Rote learning is almost never appropriate
    2) Rote learning is appropriate for learning basic facts

    or something else.

  4. I had a professor who encouraged each student to bring a personal one-page “cheat sheet” to exams. His idea was that making the sheets helped us to organize the key ideas and material in our minds. It worked! It’s a good technique to focus for an exam, even when the sheet can’t be used during test time.

  5. I am writing from the perspective of a mother. My girls go to mainstream (in town) Bais Yaakov high schools, my boys to a mainstream (nominally Chassidish) cheder (boys’ elem. school) and mesivta (hs).

    When it comes to test taking, I compare the manner in which each of them study. The girls stay up hours cramming the knowledge into their brains, only to forget most of the information after the test is over. Often, they do not even understand what they are spitting back in any larger context. They just memorize what they needto in order to pass their tests.

    OTOH, my boys barely need to study for a gemorah test-or a even a chumash test. They review the material, of course, but there is no cramming because they understand the material. They can translate the words – not because of intensive memorization, but because of the method of learning in yeshivos. the Rebbe teaches, and reviews, and learns more, and reviews the basics, and builds on the basics, while not neglecting them so that the boys have their knowledge “intheir bones”. That is the difference between analytical and rote memorization.

    I feel sorry for my girls – after all the pressure and hard work, they are left with a lot less knowledge in the long run.

  6. Re: Bob’s comment #16

    History will be taught in Jewish schools as well as in public ones. The history teachers will have a college education from “the system.” All history teachers should cover the curriculum as instructed by their schools. Regardless of their biases, they have to do that.

    Within secular and religious studies, there are varied opinions. An example in secular history is conflicting analyses, within rigorous academic circles, of a cause and effect relationship between events. If the curriculum includes one opinion, the teacher MUST teach that, and must test on that. The other opinions, although from authentic sources, can be mentioned in the appropriate context and circumstances. If a teacher does not follow school regulations, he or she should be disciplined.

    Within religious studies, an example might be the permissible ways and circumstances under which we can photograph a celestial body (That happens to be the day’s topic in the Daily Halachah Discussion by Rabbi Doniel Yehuda Neustadt). The head of a school might mandate a certain opinion that teachers MUST teach and must test. The other opinions, although from authentic sources, can be mentioned in the appropriate context and circumstances. If a teacher does not follow school regulations, he or she should be disciplined.

    The two paragraphs are intentionally redundant. The method of supervision of professional teachers should not vary widely, whether the subject is secular history, Torah studies, industrial arts or any other area.

    A professional teacher will be loyal to the school that hires him, regardless of where he or she received a degree/s’michah (ordination) or other credentials.

    I feel that intelligent young men and women can be informed by a teacher that there are other opinions out there. As the student moves on to further study, he or she can analyze these various opinions with advanced sources or consultation with authorities on the matter.

  7. Mark, the comments here favored rote memorization in a very limited sense, namely, as a prerequisite for higher level thinking and learning. If the schools you deal with use rote outside its desirable limits, they need to rethink what they do. They may also be limited by the abilities of their existing staff, or any staff they could afford to pay.

  8. I agree, Mark.
    I wish that more “new” teachers who have gone to college would be hired in the day school/yeshiva system. Having “fresh” teachers make learning (both Chol and Kodesh) more exciting.
    The problem, especially now with professional losing their jobs, is that no teacher wants to retire. This is true within the public school stystem, as well.

    Thus we are left with our children getting, hopefully, a good education, based on older methodology.

    While I’m impressed with my son’s ability to memorize Mishnayos and Rashis (along with tons of information about sports figures…I have never followed sports, so it’s all Greek to me), I’m thankful that his school works on Middos Tovos as well. Holding a door open for someone and knowing to say “Thank you” are just as impressive to me (and maybe more) than Mishnayos al peh.

  9. It’s my fault for combining them, but I do think we should distinguish between Limudei HaKodesh (Torah) and Limudei Chol (Secular). I think that there are teaching methodologies that should be introduced into Limudei HaKodesh, but from my experience in my schools and from the pro rote-memorization sentiments expressed here, few people research or apply new methodologies to even Limudei Chol.

    For the Limudei Kodesh, it is more complex because the Mishna does provide a methodology of knowing Chumash, Mishna and then Gemora, but we have “innovated” away from this approach. Although I put “innovated” in scare quotes, I do not question these innovations by our leaders, only whether they are currently globally applicable. But reading the Ramchal at the beginning of Derech Hashem, I think that even when teach Chumash and Mishna it needs to be taught in context and not through rote-memorization.

    In terms of which should come first analytical or technical skills, many if not most schools combined them and focus more on analytical in the classroom. This is probably because the technical skills take repetition and doing this in the classroom is not an effective use of the time. In addition repetition is boring and at least in the analytical realm we have the potential of achieving the difficult task of holding most of the classes attention.

    At the end of the day, knowing facts is obviously important, but rote-memorization is the worst possible teaching tool for everyone, even those of us with great memories, in my opinion.

  10. Re: Comment # 14
    “This is also why BTs often have trouble in learning, because they don’t memorize all the necessary vocabulary.”

    My oldest child (4th grade boy) currently gets postive reinforcement for memorizing Mishnayos from his rebbe.

    As a BT (who after graduating public hs attended a post-hs yeshiva in Israel, as well as YU) I totally see where Mark is coming from.
    I still am constantly trying to memorize vocab and “root words” in hopes of “catching up”.

    As a parent, I see that for my kids who are in a fantastic day school, it’s not, as Mark put it, memorizing “all the necessary vocabulary”, because the students don’t know what is considered nescessary. They simply are relying on their teachers to instruct them in what they need to know in order to excell in their learning.

    I think that having the tools (in this case vocab) is needed before working on the analyical skills. If the system is focusing on memorizing (no matter if it is Hewbrew or history facts) at the elementary school age, then hopefully the analyical skills will be a natural growth.

  11. Gary,

    I’m reporting about reality, not about a need for a litmus test. My message is that, under current circumstances, elementary school history instruction should stick to established facts, even some necessary but boring ones, and not promote particular theories and opinions.

    I’m not as impressed as you are by the intentions of teachers; if they’ve come out of the system they will typically share its biases.

    Jewish history is something else; it should be taught in Jewish schools in a way that is consistent with our Mesorah, by teachers committed to the Mesorah.

  12. As Bob wrote in # 12: “If today’s American teachers who are largely PC-indoctrinated to the max attempted to teach history as they saw it in more depth, the results might not be pretty. To make true sense out of history, teachers would somehow have to be trained outside of leftist academia.”

    Is the answer to train some or all of them in the halls of right-wing academia? Should school systems be required to have a specific distribution of teachers from the northeastern universities along with the conservative schools, such as the “Bible” colleges frequented by evangelicals? Teachers could be hired from those schools, too. Perhaps some of those teachers would travel to take jobs in northeastern cities and suburbs, the same way that Ivy League or CUNY or Bible college graduates might travel to Appalachia or Africa or Afghanistan to teach.

    I think that over the years, whether our nation’s political base or the the general outlook of academia has been conservative, liberal or center, most teachers have gone to work to do their job: to teach what’s on the syllabus. Rather than establishing quotas for hiring, or administering political litmus tests, we need to have rules and guidelines in our schools (public AND Jewish) to make sure that teachers stay on task.

    As I mentioned in my post (#41)to(

    “The more experienced and qualified the teacher, the more he or she should be given leeway to express his or her own opinion to OLDER students. These opinions should be accompanied by a qualification that it may differ from the school’s “official position.””


    Regarding the need to memorize facts: I am currently learning Mishnah Nedarim (Tractate re:Vows). I certainly can’t remember all of the particular situations, but after having gone through many scenarios in the tractate, I can sometimes anticipate, or after the fact understand why a ruling goes a certain way.

    We recite each morning in “Rabbi Yishmael Says”: 8: “Anything that was included in a general statement, but was then singled out from the general statement in order to teach something, was not singled out to teach only about itself, but to apply its teaching to the entire generality.” (Artscroll Hebrew-English Ashkenaz siddur, page 51)

    We can apply this concept to all types of study. For example, there are 50 states, and each has a capital. The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg, the capital of New York is Albany, etc. By going through this list of cities and their role in a state, it is reinforced that America has 50 states, each with its own seat of government.

  13. David, where did you come up with memorization is easy? Do even the straight A students get 100 on every fact based test? Not in my experience.

    Rote memorization success is a function of at least the following factors:
    raw memorization ability
    amount of material
    amount of time

    This is also why BTs often have trouble in learning, because they don’t memorize all the necessary vocabulary.

  14. I wonder, also, if memorizing facts instills confidence in students. Since it is something that the average student, I’m not speaking about a student with learning challenges, can do and do perfectly perhaps it teaches them that a little hard work pays off and that they have the ability to succeed. Besides, who knows when they will end up on Jeopardy?

  15. If today’s American teachers who are largely PC-indoctrinated to the max attempted to teach history as they saw it in more depth, the results might not be pretty. To make true sense out of history, teachers would somehow have to be trained outside of leftist academia.

  16. How do you fairly and objectively grade children on their analytical skills? Years ago, there was a multiple choice question on an intelligence test that showed four pictures of men doing various activities. The child had to pick which man was working, and the correct answer was the man who was chopping down a tree. One boy was scored wrong for picking the man sitting and reading a book. When asked about his choice, the boy said that his father was a college professor. During the school year, when he was working, his father sat and read books in preparation for lessons. When he was off from work, on school vacations, his father rented a cabin and chopped down trees for firewood. So, was there some problem with the boy’s analytical skills that led him to select the wrong answer?

    The bar exam for admission into the legal profession generally has an essay section as well as a multiple choice portion. I remember that our bar exam study course taught us that it was most important to identify all of the relevant legal issues. In other words, even in the analytical portion of the exam, we had to show some memorization ability, but then we had to apply this factual knowledge in an intelligent manner to the problem at hand.

    If we did away with brute memorization, students could still be able to argue all sides of the issue, but they’d be woefully ignorant of the facts. To build a house, you need to know bricklaying, but you also need the bricks. Effective learning requires factual knowledge as well as analytical skills.

    Holocaust deniers and anti-Israel ranters are able to make the most outrageous claims because so many people are ignorant of the basic facts of twentieth-century history. Anyone who has studied and yes, memorized, the facts of World War II and of the 1967 Six-Day War is going to know that their statements are completely false. Note that there are groups which go to Jewish students on the college campuses and tell them, “Here are the solid historical facts that you need to refute these anti-Semites. Memorize them.”

  17. Education professor Brenda M. Trofanenko says Americans’ historical apathy is an indictment of the way history is taught in grades K-12.

    Facts and important historical dates, Trofanenko said, are easily measured and quantifiable through tests, which is why they remain so popular in elementary and secondary education. The emphasis on memorizing facts and dates has its roots in standardized testing and has only been given further pedagogical credence by the accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind law.

    “In elementary- and middle-school grades, history is one of many subjects of social studies, which is not a testable subject or focus of current NCLB laws,” she said. “And if it’s not testable, it’s often not taught. Asking a student to write an essay explaining the moral dilemmas of the American Revolution can’t be put into a bubble answer.”

  18. Perhaps, I am slightly biased as a political science major and history minor, but I seem to recall that Santayana stated that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it in the future.

    That comment always has struck me as quite similar to the famous comment of Ramban in Parshas Lech Lcha, based on the Medrash Tanchuma of Maaseh Avos Siman LBanim. On a more practical level, IIRC, there is a Rema in Hilcos Shabbos that permits the study of history books on Shabbos and a comment by the Chasam Sofer in one of his Teshuvos that the study of history is a mitzvah.

    I do think that the study and knowledge of the actors and events that shaped the world , the US and the Jewish People can be effectuated in a way that makes the student and adult exited, as opposed to bored-especially if the key elements are stressed and the unnecessary details are removed. For instance, knowing where a President was born is IMO utterly irrelevant. OTOH, knowing about the effectiveness or lack thereof of the Presidents, the stances and achievements of key members of Congress and the key domestic and foreign issues that impacted on the development of the US strike as me as critical elements of anyone’s knowledge and ability to be cognizant of current events.

    In a similar vein, knowing who is a Tanna, Amora, Rishon and Acharon is and the important works of Chazal, Rishonim, and Acharonim as well as critical disputes in Halacha and Hashkafa also strikes me IMO as having an important sense of Yedios Kllaliyos and their impact on our lives as well.

  19. Mark wrote in #2 “Perhaps there is a difference between key facts and “trivial” facts. I’m sure we could come up with some things that we agree are not worth memorizing like the birth places of every president.”

    It seems “unnecessary” to know the birthplace of every president or the capital of every state in the 5th grade, only to forget them by the 6th. However, if we didnt’t spend all that time learning their birthplaces, we would probably be able to name fewer presidents, and if we didn’t put so much into learning all the capitals, we would never know the names of all of the states.

  20. “Actually, younger children are well served by memorization of facts. ”

    To what ages does this apply?

  21. Actually, younger children are well served by memorization of facts. It is a prereq to advancing their skills when they reach the stages of logic and reasoning.

    I would answer that exercising the brain is vital and this is one way to exercise the brain.

  22. Perhaps there is a difference between key facts and “trivial” facts. I’m sure we could come up with some things that we agree are not worth memorizing like the birth places of every president.

    To the question, “Why do I have to learn this?”, sometimes we might honestly be stretched for an answer. “Because the State of NY says so”, sometimes doesn’t hold so much weight.

    Here’s an interesting article on the subject:

    Here’s another point of view:

  23. We can’t say that a particular fact or set of facts will be useless, even if we know that most facts learned will be useless. That’s because each of today’s students will follow a unique track in life. Many of tomorrow’s great ideas and inventions will depend on some arcane, “trivial” facts lurking in our memories. Pulling ideas out of left field to integrate into some new scheme is important in music, art, and comedy, too!

    Then there are things like tying shoelaces or knowing “times tables” that become so routine that we can use our powers of thought on more important stuff.

    Imagine trying to teach analysis to kids who have not memorized the dull details of letters, numbers, phonics, grammar, or vocabulary.

    One reason why our political world today is a wasteland is that key facts of history and science are untaught and unknown to many voters. The voters are then easy marks for political charlatans.

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