There are two questions I get asked more than any others.
How do I remember so many things?
How do I speak so many languages? Don’t they all get confused?
It turns out these are all one question and that the key to you getting it is to realize just how dumb much of the educational practices that the Western world has created are.
On Sunday night, I saw two students back to back for AP Euro. They had the same complaint that every AP History student has. There’s just so much information!!! How do you remember it all?!? They’d done flashcards. They’d drilled for hours. They took notes. None of it would work. Of course to anyone who has read The Straight-A Conspiracy, the answer is a simple one: You Navigate Your Test Prep Like a London Cabbie. You find connections within the material that make it memorable. You create memory hooks. You find patterns. You build a giant web of information.
There’s a reason why kids who kick butt at Spelling Bees focus so heavily on etymology and root words. It transforms a long list of seemingly disconnected words into a coherent interconnected web. Now, they’re all related. Humans LOVE relationships. Readers of The Straight-A Conspiracy will recognize this example:
In fact, once you start to notice that effective learning is about making relationships, you notice it everywhere. One of the great things about being a tutor for rich people is that rich people have private chefs and the nice rich people feed you. The mean ones make you come through the servant’s entrance and have children who try and kick you in the balls for fun. (Yes, this happened…repeatedly.) Anyway, one of my all-time favorite families had this awesome private chef named Nicole Gomez. You’ll all meet Nicole. She’s going to be teaching cooking through Mixed Mental Arts. And one of things she said to me years ago was that she memorized all the flavor profiles and thought of them as relationships. Coffee and chocolate are best friends!!! And they both like vanilla too. And chocolate likes strawberry but coffee and strawberry HATE each other. The level of playfulness and emotional intensity was awesome. It was clear that in Nicole’s head flavors had been turned into characters with a complex set of relationships. It was a flavor soap opera. That’s how she retained all that info and could use it to quickly make sense of any recipe or what a dish was missing. She had made connections.
And this is the key to bringing history or learning to life. Stupidly, Western education keeps putting everything in little boxes.
The same atomistic thinking that caused Westerners to become so individualistic and to separate housing into little separate units caused them to divide up the world into separate disciplines. There’s math, literature, physics, chemistry, biology, history, psychology, economics, gender studies, African-American studies and on and on. And now, the boxes keep on getting smaller and smaller. There are smaller and smaller subdisciplines in each of these areas. Initially, this was helpful. The world is a complicated place and much of the success of the West’s intellectual endeavors came from breaking the problem up. However, as you focus on less and less, you lose more and more context. The more you stare at a tiny part of one tree the more you lose sight of the forest.
My two tutoring sessions on AP Euro didn’t drill down into one section of the textbook. They went all over the place. We connected the rise of textile manufacturing in England to a rising demand in cotton which led to a rise in Southern Slavery. We talked about how the psychology of someone like Justin Beiber or Kanye West who lives in an environment where they have power without effective checks and balances is just like the psychology of many Kings throughout the ages. We made connections. We took the broken pieces of things my students already knew and I showed them that those pieces fit together in ways they hadn’t realized or thought about. I connected what they needed to know to what they already knew. This is just not how things are done in Western education.
Of course, Western education doesn’t seem to be working for my students in completing the assigned task of remembering the AP Euro. Fortunately, the majority of parents and students are interested in results. The truly fallacious one is the approach that doesn’t deliver results. I used to use that much more linear approach because I was focused on being logical. Logic has its value in constructing arguments a reader can track. But what I’m focused on when I’m trying to help students remember things is MEANING. And that is a deeply personal process that rests on understanding what they know and framing the new information to deliver emotional experiences. As James Loewen, author of Lies My History Teacher told me puts it, “Emotion is the glue that causes history to stick.”
All the emotion can be useful. Together, we can find humor in a satirical cartoon that is hundreds of years old. We can find disgusted by the living conditions in the Industrial Revolution. We can blow students minds by showing them something was the opposite of what they always thought. And we can create that satisfying experience of connecting the dots and having everything fall into place. In so doing, we’re using both atomism to pick out two or more pieces from the entirety of human knowledge and we’re holding them up so they can use holism to see how they fit together.
Connect the dots on what happens to people with unchecked power by looking at Kanye West, Justin Bieber, the Russian Tsars, The French Kings, Kim Jong-Un and so on. Connect the dots on how a rise in textile manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution affected cotton demand in the American South and led to a rise in slavery. In so doing, you’re getting the chance to make Kintsugi. Just like the ancient Japanese took the broken pieces of pottery and filled in the cracks with gold so you can do the exact same thing with ideas, names, dates, places, formulas, theorems and flavors. The art of using a human memory is the art of getting better and better at making kintsugi.
And that art comes down to repeatedly asking a very simple question: why? Why do we have racism? Why did Gavrilio Princip shoot Franz Ferdinand? Why do we think some people have good memories and bad memories? Because teenagers have no problem remembering the rap lyrics, movie lines, pop songs and YouTube sketches that are meaningful to them and provoke emotional responses. We think people have bad memories because our Western culture makes little boxes. We think pop culture is low and the culture of what is taught in schools is high. Teens are perfectly comfortable playing around with pop culture and remixing it. When it comes to what’s taught in school though, there’s a deadly preciousness that prevents them from breaking ideas and piecing them back together. There’s a fear you might do it WRONG.
And that’s where all this talk about memory connects back to how you feeeeeeel about mistakes. The more you get comfortable with being wrong and actively embracing it the better you’ll get at tinkering with ideas and connecting the dots. You will move from intellectual paralysis to coming out to play with ideas.
As you do so, you’ll come to develop a memory that looks more and more like a massive interconnected web.
It’s all connected, man! And the more you connect up all those dots, you’re giving yourself more places and more ways to connect new ideas. Moreover, you’re actually changing your emotional experience of the world.
As a kid at an all boy’s boarding school, I had a teacher who wanted to interested in history so she told us the story of The Raft of the Medusa. When we first looked at the painting, it seemed pretty boring. It’s brown. It’s a raft. Who cares?
And then she told us why the painting was a big deal. In 1816, there was a big scandal in France because a group of shipwreck survivors had been found whose behavior struck at the core of what the French liked to believe about themselves. As the Medusa was going down those onboard managed to make a raft from the ship’s planking. One night, the soldiers on the raft broke into the casks of wine and got drunk. Then, being thirsty they drank all the water. Eventually, the people on the raft descended into cannibalism. The Raft of the Medusa is pretty much the 1816 version of Alive.
Now, think about Alive. A group of Uruguayan rugby players crashes in the Andes and has to eat the flesh of their dead companions to survive. How gnarly is that. How upsetting is that even now. Now imagine how much more upsetting that idea would have been in France in 1816. And so when Gericault decided to paint The Raft of the Medusa he was throwing this uncomfortable truth about what human beings can be driven to in the faces of polite French society. And the real painting isn’t small. It’s 16 feet by 23 feet. It’s MASSIVE. Suddenly, this same painting became intensely fascinating. Were there people eating human flesh in the painting? What are they doing on this raft? We wanted to look but we didn’t want to look at the same time.
Later, I went to the Louvre with my father. The Raft of the Medusa is right by the Mona Lisa. And everybody stares at the Mona Lisa and walks right by The Raft of the Medusa. They just don’t know why it’s fascinating. That’s life. The world is full of intensely fascinating and memorable things most of which we just walk right by.
In reality, it’s all connected. The challenge is in figuring out why. The more you embrace that challenge the more meaningful and emotionally rewarding life becomes. The more we help each other do that the more we all win.