Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Good Little Parrots

When Albert Einstein was making the rounds of the speaker's circuit, he usually found himself eagerly longing to get back to his laboratory work. One night as they were driving to yet another rubber-chicken dinner, Einstein mentioned to his chauffeur (a man who somewhat resembled Einstein in looks & manner) that he was tired of speechmaking.  

"I have an idea, boss," his chauffeur said. "I've heard you give this speech so many times. I'll bet I could give it for you." Einstein laughed loudly and said, "Why not? Let's do it!"  

When they arrived at the dinner, Einstein donned the chauffeur's cap and jacket and sat in the back of the room. The chauffeur gave a beautiful rendition of Einstein's speech and even answered a few questions expertly.  

Then a supremely pompous professor asked an extremely esoteric question about anti-matter formation, digressing here and there to let everyone in the audience know that he was nobody's fool. Without missing a beat, the chauffeur fixed the professor with a steely stare and said, "Sir, the answer to that question is so simple that I will let my chauffeur, who is sitting in the back, answer it for me."

The above story is pure fiction, but it humorously demonstrates the serious difference between genuine knowledge and rote learning (a process using routine without full attention or comprehension, mechanical or unthinking repetition, the use of memory with little intelligence).  

In our tale, the chauffer—using only his mental powers of recall—flawlessly spoke about things of which he had no true understanding. His “lecture” was merely rote repetition. 

We see this sort of thing all of the time; people parroting lines and phrases with no real depth of thought or reason, mindless echo chambers in a culture of slogans and snippets. 

When will the robotic jabbering end?  

Do you remember being in school and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? How much thought went into the daily intonation? It was nothing but rote repetition. What if we were to apply this methodology to all “learning”? 

I fear to a large extent we are doing just that—following a paradigm of rote education. That is, we are training students to pass “multiple guess” tests where they simply regurgitate “right” answers which require little or no right thinking. Our goal is to mass-produce good little parrots, not critical thinkers. 

And why do you suppose this is?


  1. Critical thinking seems to be on the decline in our dumbed-down post-modern culture.

  2. Yes. Thank you for reading and thinking.

  3. Rote is not necessarily bad. I may not fully understand a portion of scripture when I first begin memorizing it. But once it's in there, God can then use it, focus my mind on it, and give me a desire to truly understand it. On the other hand, I could use the David Koresh method of Bible memorization where I just want to use the Bible to hammer on the Biblically illiterate. Never mind how it applies to me.

    1. Nowhere did I say "rote" is "bad."

      The point is rote requires no understanding and no critical thinking. You admit as much when you say "God can then use it . . . give me a desire to truly understand it."

      In so saying you concede my point: Rote in and of itself does not entail understanding.