Memorizing Versus Understanding

By Caleb Keith

Last week, I started what will be my last semester as an undergraduate student, and boy does it feel sweet. As week two begins, I am feeling the hurt as the work begins to stack up. For my last semester, I decided to torture myself by taking three classical languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Primarily taking language classes is nice because there are no research papers due at the end of the semester. However, the time and energy I gain from not writing papers is quickly sapped away by memory work. Vocab cards need flipping, paradigm charts need filling, and I could use a drink. Memory work is vital to language study, but it isn’t the whole picture. Memory work can’t be blind; it must have a purpose or goal for it to be worthwhile. When I study, I do not do so with the intention to have a bunch of random words and charts in my head. I do it with the goal to better understand my world. Memorization is far from understanding, and memorization that never reaches a level of any understanding is hardly worth the time. This is not true only concerning language but concerning everything we put to memory.

Last week, one of my professors told us about a class in seminary in which the students were required to memorize the entire Small Catechism with questions and answers. After pausing for a second, he asked what was wrong with that picture. I would ask the same question of blindly memorizing Scripture. There are versus that every Christian should know, but even more valuable is the questions they prompt, the context they are within, and the truth which they proclaim. Simply putting things to memory is a good way to have the right answer at the wrong time. In this way, being able to paraphrase and yet understand and work with large sections of Scripture is better than having a handful of verses perfectly committed to memory. As Christians, it is vital that we know the difference between memorizing and understanding. When we study the Scriptures, the catechism, or even the Biblical languages, we should do so not just to have the answer but to better understand the Gospel and proclaim it to miserable sinners like us.

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8 thoughts on “Memorizing Versus Understanding

  1. I grew up Methodist and bounced around a bit in my college years (Catholic, Baptist, Non-denominational). This reminds me of a few verses I had memorized at that time. I had probably read them somewhere online or saw one on a poster. My favorite verse to quote was Galatians 6:9.

    Now, I can’t say I no longer like that verse. After all, all scripture is God-breathed and good, right and true. But I can say that I despise the context in which I memorized that verse. I wasn’t concerned with what truth was being proclaimed, only what I wanted it to say. Thankfully, I’ve learned to understand and the truth that I found is so much better than the worldview I was creating for myself. Thank you for the message and good luck in your last semester.

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    1. Right. I’m sure it’s the questions and answers of the Small Catechism and not those in the Synod’s Explanation. Seminarians should know the catechism and, like Luther, be students of the catechism. Nothing “wrong with that picture.”

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  2. Your professor needs to read Luther’s preface to the small catechism again. “In the second place, after they have well learned the text, then teach them the sense also, so that they know what it means, and again choose the form of these tables, or some other brief uniform method, whichever you like, and adhere to it, and do not change a single syllable, as was just said regarding the text; and take your time to it. For it is not necessary that you take up all the parts at once, but one after the other. After they understand the First Commandment well, then take up the Second, and so on, otherwise they will be overwhelmed, so as not to be able to retain any well.”

    In other words, teach them words, then teach them what the words mean.

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  3. We memorize in order to understand later. So I am not terribly concerned at this moment that my 3 year old son be able to write a dissertation on the meaning of “forgive us our trespasses.” In fact, I don’t care if he wants to memorize it or not. We work on memorizing so that we can build off of what is memorized. This is the flaw of the Professor’s assumption, he seems to not even understand how leaning happens. The other error is that it has to be the student who creates some kind of telos for his memorization. That too is unnecessary as that is the role of the one who teaches. Now if the student can get on board with that goal, well there’s a gold star, but at the outset, it isn’t necessary.

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    1. My professor in graduate school in mathematics told several of us as we were struggling with the proof of the Heine-Borel theorem, “Memorize first; understanding will come.” You know…he was right! The light of understanding soon began to shine. And I suggest that what was true for us graduate students in mathematics is true for undergraduates learning languages and seminarians learning theology.

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  4. I think some people are misunderstanding the point of the question and the story. My professor’s remarks were not an encouragement to reject memorizing the Catechism. It was to make us ask why we memorize. The Catechism was designed to be memorized, but was it designed for memorization’s sake? No, it was designed to teach children and families the knowledge and substance of the Christian faith. I have memorized the catechism two times in my life, yet if asked to recite it word for word this very moment I could not. Is my past work in vain because of what details slip my memory? Of course not. In memorizing, those who taught me to do so did it with the intention that the catechism serve as a tool for understanding the Scriptures not so that anytime I am questioned about the faith I can mindlessly spit out sections of the catechism.

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  5. Assuming your vocational goal is some form of service to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (and I come to that conclusion from your attendance at Irvine and the courses you are taking), might I suggest you glance through Luther’s introduction to the Large Cathechism. Luther not only has some choice comments for those who wish to teach the faith, but those comments are part of the Lutheran confessions one publicly acknowledges are a faithful witness of Scripture. Memorization is not cramming something before a test. It is a lifelong process.

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