When the cheese is full of holes

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
"The chi inside is the same as the chi outside. There is only this chi, and we are a part of this chi."

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
I listened to this phrase, over and over, over 10 years ago, and giggled about it with my friend Rachel, because we (mature, much) replaced "chi" with "cheese" this one time, and I can’t hear that phrase, over and over, in my head without hearing the cheese in it.

It can pop in, unbidden, to my auditory cortex, in much the same way as the entire Catholic catechism or any of the Pet Shop Boys’ mid- to late-’80s song lyrics. "Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ll ever do, every place I’ve ever been, everywhere I’m going to. It’s a sin." That was the Pet Shop Boys, not the Catholics, they "of all that is seen and unseen".

Repetition, repetition, repetition. Rote learning, while ostensibly out of fashion in educational circles, is still one of the key ways we get information and ideas lodged in our brains. We curate our lives around the repeated messages we tell ourselves. Advertisers and politicians sell us things between three and seven times to get them to stick. Or you know, like, hundreds when we’re being social-media-spammed, give or take.

Somewhere I read that the optimum amount of times to read things if you want to absorb them is 10, and that we should do this both visually and verbally, but I only read it the once, so I’m not confident I can either relay that information or name the source.

When I was studying for my final school exams, I read my notes aloud, once, on to a tape (remember tapes?) and played it back as I slept (remember sleeping?) and that was what passed for revision and somehow I passed.

In my British history class, prior to rote-reading the notes on to the tape, I had rote-written them from the dictation of Mr Lewis, my mustachioed, suit-wearing teacher. Though we did have exam sections on questioning the sources, the information we were given was handed down as empirical.

And this is one of the problems with rote learning — it encourages us to parrot information in an uncritical vacuum.

It’s super-useful for things like times tables and formulae, and I am actually stoked that I don’t have to reach for a calculator for eight eights being 64 or seven nines being 63, and knowing that satisfying trick of the pattern of the nines.

But it is not so great when regurgitating "I’m not worthy" or "a strong economy is the thing" or "carrots give x-ray vision superpowers" or any of those things, mundane or fundamental, that we can catch ourselves telling ourselves without considering the impact and the source.

In a world shifting so fast, it can feel unsettling to have the foundations of so-called foundational knowledge shaken, and really flipping tricky to check what is accurate or true or reasonable or moral to add to our rota of rote.

If I want to know about the current state of thought about x-ray carrots, Google will give me about 926,000 results in exactly 0.83 seconds, and that’s all well and good, but I’m bogged down or distracted somewhere between the Cornell University experiment that showed that kids ate 62% more vegetables when they had cool names (like, yes, x-ray carrots), and a blog post by MsMarmiteLover and something about horse hoof x-rays, which I can see is connected because carrots.

We’re so bombarded by distractions and attractions and messages and messages and messages of such advertising slickness that we’re often sucked in, even if just a bit, before we can start to resist and before we know it, we have new so-called facts and fundamentals on rote in the ear- and eye-worms of our brains.

So "forgive me father for I have sinned"— oh wait, no, forgive me world, for I have rested on the laurels of what I’ve been taught and of dodgy chi/cheese combinations and catchy ’80s lyrics and cult religious undercuttings, because it’s easier than resisting the clicks, questioning my sources, finding the information and working it out for myself.



Not a calculator! Your calculator, inside your head!

I used lines learning for exams, to consign learning to memory. It is not critical thinking, but one dawdled reading Susan Sontag, not the curriculum. Also, there may not be a question on that which you have learnt by rote.

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