Beyond Words - Language Blog

The Benefits of Flexing Mental Muscle

Many roads lead to the education of a populace and the process and approaches to that end have changed, undergone scrutiny, been adapted, ramified, and revisited over mankind’s existence. Many centuries-old techniques, such as the regular memorization of poetry both in one’s native language and in foreign languages, have since fallen out of favor. Today, much of the Western world emphasizes a creative approach, eschewing rote memorization in favor of tailored teaching methods that allow children to develop as individuals and to pinpoint their interests and strengths.

While gentle-touch approaches resonate with many and can garner positive results, there are a host of benefits cast by the wayside in forgoing the lessons of our ancestors. A 2007 book by psychoanalyst Norman Doidge entitled The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science examines how the human mind possesses incredible regenerative properties that can be harnessed through regular mental and even physical exercises. Take for example the technique practiced in America in the past and currently obligatory in much of the world: emphatic attention to handwriting, employed as soon as a child begins to read and write. Beautiful, legible handwriting is not the only result, according to Dr. Doidge’s findings: The very act of learning to write elegantly strengthens motor skills, leading to enhanced fluency in reading and speaking. “Today many of the most learned among us,” writes Dr. Doidge, “prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation – the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.”

Rote memorization – a term sure to horrify the more progressive Western educators – can actually account for strengthened brain function. For centuries, students were required to memorize and recite poetry. In his book, Dr. Doidge maintains that the auditory memories of students emerging from that educational model are superior to those of us whose educations lacked that component. Elocution, pronunciation, an enriched vocabulary, and the ability to perform in front of an audience are all benefits that stem from a component of education deemed obsolete in much of the Western world. And the beauty and wisdom gained from the finest poets and authors does not just dissipate from students’ minds as they grow older. In my own experience, I have heard adults educated according to older models answer questions with quotes from classical literature, respond to laments with recitations of poetry, and dole out advice from Plato, Pushkin, and Shakespeare. As educational approaches continue to shift and develop, we would all be well-advised to differentiate between the obsolete and the essential in education, preserving the wisdom of our forefathers.


Illustration via brain_blogger