One cause of American society’s shift to the left over the past six decades has been a series of subtle acts of “progress” that, at their inception, did not appear to be political at all. Only after their acceptance did their implications become clear.
An example, one (apparently) far from the world of politics: memorization in schoolwork. Or rather, “rote memorization,” as progressive educators put it. Nothing political about that practice, right? It’s just a homework task, or a way to fill class time, and its matter could be anything, the facts of a rightwing movement or the words of a leftwing treatise. In former times, students memorized poems, the presidents from GW to JFK, Latin conjugations, the Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .”). It was a core method of learning, arduous for some and boring for many. Just do it, teachers ordered.
Until, that is, educators in the mid-twentieth century decided that memorization was just a mechanical activity. It didn’t produce genuine comprehension, they said. Students swallow and regurgitate; the materials haven’t been examined, pondered, assessed. In education theory, the most influential model of such acts of thinking has been Bloom’s Taxonomy, a pyramid of learning objectives produced around 1950. The revised version (from 2001) places “remembering” at the bottom, below “create,” “evaluate,” “analyze,” “apply,” and “understand.” That ranking is as canonical as ever in schools of education, where our teachers are taught that memorization is a lower-order thinking skill.
The skill most honored for many years now in pedagogical discussions is critical thinking, an operation held up as the very antithesis of rote memorization. We don’t want kids to memorize words and facts, teachers insist. We want kids to think critically about words and facts.
You see the familiar outlines: an escape from regimentation, from twenty-five kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as one. The shift to critical thinking was a methodological advance on old ways, “scientifically proven” to yield better outcomes, and an ethical advance as well, promising an open society populated by open minds. Memorization treated kids as robots, frustrating their creativity and punishing them if they didn’t mouth prescribed words and facts. How denigrating—and such low expectations, too. Critical thinking respected students as independent thinkers and helped to make them such.
In this rhetorical framing, teachers loyal to memorization came off as hidebound practitioners. They were reactionaries, albeit of a disciplinary rather than political kind. They were resisting progress! This apolitical verdict was an important piece of the reform, central to its characterization as an ethical advance. For it to prevail, the camps of critical thinkers and memorizers could not break down as progressives vs. conservatives. Instead, we had a contest of authentic educators vs. schoolmarms and dolts.
But the progressive bias toward critical thinking should have been clear from the start. Memorization is a mode of adherence to the past, a preservation of old things. Critical thinking is a mode of dismantling. Memorization honors the materials of yore as worth internalizing in their exact form. You’re not allowed to change the words of a Shakespeare sonnet. Critical thinking breaks those materials down, analyzes them, poses incisive questions, pulls out buried assumptions, rethinks, and reexamines. The first operation maintains the past; the second claims superiority to it.
Progressives back then and now say that their aim is to deepen and diversify knowledge of the past. Critical thinking is done in the service of thicker descriptions of the U.S. presidency and broader awareness of Shakespeare’s meanings. It is not a loss of the past but the recovery of a richer past in all its complexities and rival forces. Whereas memorization remains at the surface, critical thinking reveals subtexts and causes, repressed ideas and peoples. The words of Lady Macbeth are interesting, sure, but what about the fact that the actor playing her way back then was male, not female? That opens up a new line of inquiry, and students who follow it are now considered more knowledgeable than those who merely recite the sleepwalking scene.
This rationale collapses in view of the actual practice of critical thinking in the classroom. Critical thinking was sold to educators as a neutral inquisition; but when we observe how and where it has been applied, and to what objects, the partisanship emerges with full intention. The application of critical thinking over the years has been entirely selective. The conventional, the traditional, and the tried-and-true have undergone scrutiny. Longstanding conceptions such as “classic” and “canonical” and “common sense” have been targets. Accepted and normative things have been demystified.
I watched it happen for forty years in the humanities at the university level. Progressives exerted their critical thinking on “heteronormativity,” leaving homosexuality in a zone of unquestioned rest. They put the American Dream and the nuclear family in sneer-quotes, the little diacritical marker that conveys a (putatively) decisive takedown. Western Civilization and Great Books got the same treatment, as did the Founding and Plymouth Rock and other cornerstones of traditionalist thinking. Here is an incomplete list of what still hasn’t undergone critical thinking in mainstream circles: the anti-war movement; communists in Hollywood and government; the sexual revolution; anti-colonialism; the Black Panthers; postmodern irony.
By the time critical thinking’s left turn became obvious, a professional norm had been established. To start asking skeptical questions would be impertinent, ill-mannered, unprofessional. However weighted against conservatism, the outcome was disciplinary, not political. A methodological change had steered the meaning of the past in an ideological direction—a sweeping shift that began with the discrediting of memorization. Memorization, it turned out, was one of the foundations of a traditional formation of the young. Its loss opened the door to progressive lessons in Western and American guilt, in patriarchy and colonialism, in false heroes and white privilege.
I think the smarter progressive educators understood this quite well. Many rank-and-file teachers may have favored dropping memorization because of a sentimental attachment to children’s freedom and creativity. They didn’t see much ideology in the shift to critical thinking. They were the useful idiots. The more sophisticated theorists of change knew all along what critical thinking would do to the traditional contents of the curriculum. They didn’t need to declare open war on Western Civ (though some did anyway). The shift from memorization to critical thinking would do the job.
What a loss this was for the kids. Less Homer and Shakespeare, no grand lineage of civilization—awful. Let’s add, too, the great benefits of memorization to a teen mind. For when a sixteen-year-old learns Tennyson’s “Ulysses” by heart, she labors in productive and healthy grooves. Her vocabulary grows: “hoard,” “scudding,” “unburnish’d,” and “sceptre” never pop up on her phone screen. She gathers mythological references to Troy, Achilles, Penelope, and Ithaca, not to mention a little of Dante’s Inferno, which is Tennyson’s actual source for this poem, not Homer.
We can add that the poem is a dramatic monologue, with Ulysses speaking in his own voice. That forces our sixteen-year-old to get inside the Greek’s head, to imagine his experience and longing, to figure his motives. It’s hard to memorize lines spoken by a character without becoming that character, and that identification opens the personality of the teen to what psychologists call cognitive empathy, which is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy calls for a moral affirmation of the other person; cognitive empathy doesn’t. It is an act of imagination in which one recreates the mental life of another inside oneself, and it happens even when the teen abhors the character. You might despise or fear what that character intends, but you must nevertheless recognize and recreate it. Richard III is a murderous villain, but Shakespeare draws us into his mind and heart, and memorizing his words intensifies our acquaintance.
The exercise is invaluable for adolescents, prone as they are to self-absorption (reinforced now by so many digital tools). The progressive outlook doesn’t see it that way, however. To submit oneself to tradition is oppressive; progress occurs when we free the will and liberate desire. Critical thinking exalts the critical-thinking teen. It is freedom, growth, self-determination. This is the utopian perfection that progressivism envisions. As Marx put it in The German Ideology, once capitalism’s division of labor is overthrown, an individual will be free “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.”
And yet, the fruition never comes. Conservatives know that the past nourishes us, while progressives believe the future redeems us. But the fact is that when you deprive individuals of a meaningful past, as progressivism does (because the past is a time of exploitation and misery), they lack the means to build a fulfilling present. They have no church, country, family legacy, or cultural inheritance on which to draw when the inevitable difficulties of adulthood arrive. The resources of the sole self are not enough, nor are the networks people construct online.
Yes, this is a victory for progressivism, the production of an anti-tradition outlook through the replacement of one fifth-grade learning goal for another. Progressives sweated the small stuff fifty years ago. Their party theorists played a long game, which their foot soldiers carried out in classrooms and elsewhere, knowingly or not. They pinpointed minor skirmishes far from the hot theaters of the culture wars, and they won. Now, two decades into the twenty-first century, they control more institutional terrain than anyone in 1981 could have imagined. The lesson for the right is: If you do not fight these little battles, if you do not realize that the left always has reasons, you will be even more hemmed in, besieged, canceled, and ousted in 2040 than you are now. Teachers, mentors, supervisors of the young, bring memorization back into your kids’ lives. They will thank you when they’re thirty.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.