Why Can’t They Remember?

The other day, my exhausted wife the professor came home from the university, late again, and collapsed into a chair. After sipping some liquid — and not non-alcoholic — refreshment, she asked, “Why can’t they remember anything? Why can’t they remember to open their mouths?” Now… my wife is a professor of voice and opera, and she teaches singers. One of the very basic rules behind singing is very simple: open your your mouth. It’s difficult to project sound with your mouth closed or barely open, especially if you’re trying to sing opera.

It’s a basic, very fundamental, point. And it’s not just my wife. Last week, I heard another voice instructor complaining about the same thing. So why is it that these young students, who love nothing more than to open their mouths to use their cellphones, won’t do so when they’re supposed to? And this is after months, if not years, of instruction.

Unfortunately, it goes beyond that. A good third of the students in her literature and diction class tend to forget when assignments are due… or ask in class, “When is that due?” Of course, they got a syllabus with all their assignments on the first day of class, and one page even listed the “important dates.” So… not only can they not remember, but apparently many of them can’t read, either, or they can’t remember what they read. My own suspicion is that they can’t remember because they can’t concentrate and weren’t really listening. Or they immediately lost their syllabus.

There’s been much debate over the past year about the problems of so-called multi-tasking and how all tasks are done poorly when people attempt to do more than one at a time. Ask any good voice teacher about it. They can testify to the problem. Most undergraduate students can’t handle remembering words, music, and keeping their mouth open at the same time until they’ve had several years of training… if then. Given this, why, exactly, do we as a society think that these same individuals are able to handle automobiles and cellphones simultaneously?

For several years, I taught writing and literature courses on the college level. I occasionally still do, and I learned early on that a considerable proportion of students don’t truly listen unless threatened with pain, i.e., tests, lowered grades, or embarrassment. Even then, the results are mixed. They all want good grades, and the better jobs that tend to follow higher education, but it’s apparently a real chore to remember the little things that comprise good grammar, such as the fact that adverbs aren’t conjunctions, or that independent clauses can’t be joined just by commas, or that spell-checkers don’t pick out wrong word choices spelled correctly… or that plagiarism has some very nasty consequences.

But they don’t have much trouble remembering idiotic lyrics sung off-key by models pretending to be singers… or the rules and strategies for a dozen video games. And why is it that so many teenagers and young adults, when corrected, immediately say, “I know.” If they know so much, why are so much repetition and reminding required?

And this is the generation that so many pundits have claimed will save the world from the sins of the baby-boomers?

4 Responses to “Why Can’t They Remember?”

  1. Iron Sparrow says:

    "And this is the generation that so many pundits have claimed will save the world from the sins of the baby-boomers?"

    Says a lot about the baby-boomers, doesn't it?

  2. Brian says:

    My theory is simple: lack of practice.

    With the ubiquitous artificial memory made available by technology, there is no need to laboriously memorize required information. We memorize the means to access the information instead.

    Being able to remember facts is an acquired skill that is no longer taught.

    Children don't spend as much time memorizing multiplication tables, poems, spelling lists, geographical features, or speeches such as the Gettysburg Address. Is it any surprise that they cannot remember the bolus of information we thrust upon them later in life?

    At least they aren't children left behind. The tests prove it.

  3. Sanguinius says:

    I think a few things are at work…

    1. Human stupidity, the only limitless substance in the universe, according to Einstein. This is a relatively constant function across the millenia. "This wild and unruly generation…"

    2. As Brian partially explained, lack of practice. I'm 21, and of the members of the list he mentioned, I memorized multiplication tables and spelling lists, and nothing else. This is less than ideal for a variety of reasons, which I think most people reading this blog can probably understand, but I think it is not quite as bleak as suggested.

    When I do homework, I almost always have Internet access. This is done for a variety of sound reasons, with the first and most important that my chemistry instructors assume I am using the internet for assignments, and gauge the problems accordingly. I am /required/ to be able to use a variety of chemical provider websites to find information needed to complete my work.

    This is also a symptom of another problem: Out of date/incorrect materials. We have posted instructions in my advanced organic chemistry lab on how to work up data. Which would be very handy…If following those instructions worked. Looking at my syllabus for physical chemistry would answer all questions about due dates…Except that by the third week of class, none of the dates were relevant anymore. That goes for every class I have this semester.

    One of the most aggravating features of several classes here is that all professors are required to place at least one "required" book on their syllabus. At the 100 level, about half of those books will never be used. The number goes down as you move to more advanced classes, but the first rule my peer adviser told me was never to buy a book unless you confirmed with the teacher that you would use it.

    There are several ways to solve these problems, but most of the sensible ones require some degree of forethought and time-investment. Or, as my peers (and I) often do, we get frustrated at the mound of mostly useless information tossed our way, and ask our professors.

    This is the simplest, easiest (from the students' perspective, of course) and least time-consuming method of finding the required information. And that /is/ a skill my generation has been taught. Until I started taking honors classes in high school, every question I was asked was a variant of "Here is a large grouping of information. Find the relevant parts, and perform a basic operation." For history, math, science, and often language classes, that was /all/ we had to do…Except on tests, and then everyone wondered why we did poorly on tests.

    I am somewhat better off because my parents required better learning via carefully structured games, but for all too many of my peers, formal school is all they get. I will leave with this…

    "If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?"

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    The problem underlying your observations is the assumption that information provided by the professor and not discussed in the course or required for tests is useless. It is useless IF the only point is to get a grade, but… if the point is to get an education, it is not. Unhappily, most students don't want an education; they want a grade and passport to credentials. Therefore, anything that doesn't bear on the tests or papers is "useless." I personally don't buy the idea that students are so overloaded that they have to winnow out the "useless." The only reason most of them are overloaded is because education is, in fact, secondary to the other aspects of their life. When I was a student, back in the dark ages, the actual amount of material and reading required was so much greater than what is required today… and no one thought it was excessive. Today, students have time and money for entertainment, texting about nothing, newer cars than many of the faculty, trips and airfare… but not for books, fees, and the like.

    I'm sorry, but I don't buy most of your rationalizations.