Don’t Know Much About The French I Took

Most people forget most of what they learn in school. Should we call the whole thing off?

Bryan Caplan makes an amusing point in favor of the idea that education is more about signaling than learning:

If I’d failed Spanish, I couldn’t have gone to a good college, wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton’s Ph.D. program, and probably wouldn’t be a professor.  But since I’ve merely forgotten my Spanish, I’m sitting in my professorial office, loving life.

Don Novello, most famous as Father Guido Sarducci on “Saturday Night Live” many moons ago, had a great stand up bit called Five Minute University based on the simple idea that, in five minutes, he could teach everything the average college student would remember five years after he left school:

There’s a lot of truth to this idea. A decade or so ago, I looked back at my undergraduate transcript and noted that I had gotten an “A” in at least one class that I literally don’t recall ever having taken. It’s not simply that I don’t recall whatever it was that I was supposed to have learned (as is true of my calculus classes) but that I had no recollection of who taught the course or ever having gone.

And, yet, I’ve applied for jobs since then when they insisted on a copy of my undergraduate transcript. A quarter century and two graduate degrees later.

Indeed, there are surely courses that I took in graduate school twenty years ago where the information that I still retain is modest at best. And I’m not even counting the requisite stats classes and the coding that I learned for now long-defunct mainframe statistical packages. These were courses that I chose to take in a field that I had tremendous interest and aptitude and yet, over time, most of what I learned has been relegated to bits and pieces and, hopefully, shape my general sense of “what I know” even if I can’t recall particulars.

For that matter, most of the material that I still remember quite well probably has much more to do with my years teaching the material after leaving grad school than from the student experience itself. Being able to spout the professor’s material back to him on a test–integrating it with the myriad outside readings, of course–actually requires much less understanding than being able to explain it to a clueless undergraduate who can’t fill in the blanks on his own.

On the other hand, my hunch is that Bryan remembers a lot more of his high school Spanish than he lets on. In my own case, my conversational German has atrophied so much that it’s embarrassing. Yet, I was surprised that I’d retained enough ability to read German as to be quite helpful in navigating streets, shops, and menus in Holland–which doesn’t use German! While spoken Dutch is, to me, absolutely unintelligible, the written language is close enough to German that I was able to glean quite a bit.

Then again, I’ve long been of the belief that, unless you’re training for a technical specialty, higher education is not about learning the material but grappling with it and learning how to learn. I haven’t had to do

Via Alex Tabarrok. Education image via Shutterstock.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rob in CT says:

    I think you are mostly just demonstrating that you *can* learn stuff reasonably well. Most of the time, your employer is going to train you to do your job. So your grades are just signalling that you can pick up what they need to teach you to be useful.

    I took Spanish starting in 7th grade, finishing up in 12th. My spanish is awful. I remember a handful of words/phrases. Because I didn’t keep it up, nor did I spend any time immersed in an environment of Spanish speakers.

    I do, on the other hand, remember stuff I picked up in history classes in high school, ’cause I love history. I remember 2+2 = 4 too, because I use that one (really!).

    We retain what we need + what we think is cool.

  2. Tillman says:

    In my own case, my conversational German has atrophied so much that it’s embarrassing.

    Right with you there. Thankfully I still remember how to ask for directions.

    For some damn reason, I can remember what the word “oleaginous” means, despite having only encountered it maybe twice in the years since 11th grade English.

    And, of course, I remember the quadratic formula, but that’s because I plan to get into Valhalla when I die.

  3. rodney dill says:

    I’ve long been of the belief that, unless you’re training for a technical specialty, higher education is not about learning the material but grappling with it and learning how to learn.

    Exactly. Even if your talking about computer or IT expertise as a technical specialty, learning how to learn and use all your resources is about all you have going for you, things change so fast. One skill I learned in high school that I use everyday was “Personal Typing.” In pre-computer/wordprocessor days is was assumed you would need to type to do your own papers for college. Knowing the “right” way to type has been extremely valuable in allowing me to do my computer jobs faster. (Granted, some people have developed some very fast “Hunt and peck” typing skills).

  4. Brummagem Joe says:

    There’s a lot of truth to this idea.

    A suspect notion surely if applied to engineers, chemists, doctors just for starters. I can remember a goodly portion of what I picked up as an undergrad studying history/economics/philosophy (the least in the case of the last!). It also ignores that the process of learning about this stuff is teaching you to reason and question. Learning languages is rather different then being familiar with the broad outlines of the foreign policy of the Hapsburg Monarchy or Ricardo’s economic theories although knowledge of a language is probably of more practical value.

  5. de stijl says:

    We may forget most of what we are taught, but I do know that near universal primary and secondary education is an unalloyed good thing. Literacy don’t suck. It’s a perquisite – prerequisite, one of those things, whatevs – I really wasn’t paying much attention.

  6. @Brummagem Joe:

    A suspect notion surely if applied to engineers, chemists, doctors just for starters

    Well, this would be true of whatever knowledge one acquired that one actually uses in one’s profession, yes?

    I remember more of my Spanish than I otherwise would have because of my profession. My chemistry, however? Not so much.

  7. Kylopod says:

    While I do agree that most of the information we receive in school goes in one ear and out the other, I think using foreign language as the prime example overstates the problem, since foreign language instruction in the U.S. is notoriously terrible. Other subjects, such as history and math, you probably have a much better grasp of at least the basics.

  8. JKB says:

    Of course, you don’t remember what you “learned” because you didn’t assimilate it but rather as taught held it long enough for regurgitation recitation. Then as taught, you moved on to something else without the requisite thinking necessary to integrate the knowledge into your knowledge base. That is what school teaches you to do, and those who complete college and especially graduate degrees simply are able to make use of the knowledge longer and more easily before it is lost.

    Your anecdote about teaching is apropos. When teaching you had to think about the material: you had to establish the purpose, supplement the thought, organize the ideas, judge the soundness and general worth of statements, memorize what hadn’t already become imprinted, and use the ideas. In other words, you had to make the knowledge your own in order to teach it to others.

    I’ve just finished a book
    How to Study and Teaching How to Study by F. M. McMurry, 1909

    In it the author promotes the idea of actually teaching children how to study rather than leaving them to their own devices, and leaving off at mechanical memorization. Oddly, what he promotes is now supposedly one of the good outcomes of a college education, namely, critical thinking. Only the author makes a good case for teaching it to elementary students since they have the inherent capabilities but need the discipline to apply it to subjects for which they have low interest, i.e., schoolwork. Sadly, here we are 100 years later, and we still haven’t progressed in education.

    It is, perhaps, unnecessary to collect proofs that young people do not learn how to study, because teachers admit the fact very generally. Indeed, it is one of the common subjects of complaint among teachers in the elementary school, in the high school, and in the college. All along the line teachers condole with one another over this evil, college professors placing blame on the instructors in the high school, and the latter passing it down to teachers in the elementary school. Parents who supervise their children’s studies, or who otherwise know about their habits of work, observe the same fact with sorrow. It is at least refreshing to find one matter, in the much-disputed field of education, on which teachers and parents are well agreed.

    Mr. McMurry identifies 8 factors of studying. The first 4 would commonly be thought of as thinking. Memorization is left as a clean up to imprint that which wasn’t absorbed by thinking. Then there is the use of this knowledge in your own thoughts and in new settings.

    The factors of studying:
    1. Provision for Specific Purposes [why are you studying this topic]
    2. The Supplementing of Thought [how does the material relate to what you know or others say]
    3. The Organization of Ideas [layout the ideas in main/subordinate form for relationships]
    4. Judging the Soundness and General Worth of Statements [are the ideas sound, which parts of the study can be ignored in regards to the purpose of your study]
    5. Memorizing
    6. The Using of Ideas
    7. Provision for a Tentative rather than a Fixed Attitude toward Knowledge
    8. Provision for Individuality [consider about what you think before seeking what others think to keep from assuming the ideas of others as your own]

    As you can see this would disrupt a fine public education with questions about what was being presented. Slowing the lesson plan and deviating from the state mandated regurgitation testing.

    In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar “school helplessness”; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Here’s what I learned during my truncated high school years: get the hell out of high school.

    Here’s what I learned during my brief time in college: if you keep complimenting a girl’s body she’ll think you don’t like her face. (True, actually, but really an amazing body.)

    Also: In the dorm of the potheads the man with a hot plate and blueberry pancake batter is king.

  10. Drew says:

    I have to confess that I really disagree with you in a strong way. Maybe it’s because of my narrow undergrad and grad degrees, which are in metallurgical engineering. (effectively, chemical engineering for those who do not know)

    First, engineering is a profession where they teach you how to solve problems de novo. Gather the facts. Examine the data. Apply immutable laws.

    Second. I can’t imagine how one could practice the field of engineering materials without understanding crystal structure, or carbon chain structure. Dislocation theory. Fracture mechanics and so forth.

    Nor could you practice the field of extractive science without a complete understanding of Gibbs Duhem free energy, driving chemical reactions to create separable phases, fluid flow, thermo, and on and on.

    My first employer expected me to know this stuff coming out of school. Yes, the intricacies of making high strength low alloy steel in a mill environment were learned, but without the basics, you had no chance. And I know these things t o this day.

    What up with other vocations?

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Well, this would be true of whatever knowledge one acquired that one actually uses in one’s profession, yes?

    Of course but I haven’t found many practical uses for my knowledge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the novels of Edith Wharton but have retained quite a lot of it. Do you want a lecture on Taafe’s Iron Ring.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Drew: I think that’s just different. Indeed, I caveated “training for a technical specialty” in the post. There, the material is sequential and drawn upon and directly related to one’s chosen career. But I’m guessing you’ve forgotten much of what you “learned” in the core courses outside your discipline.

    In most majors, it’s different. I took a lot of poli-sci courses but there was no sequencing for most of them. I retained a lot of it, because it came naturally to me and I was innately interested, but it wasn’t required to succeed in subsequent courses since there was no expectation that you’d taken another course first in most cases.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:


    First, engineering is a profession where they teach you how to solve problems de novo. Gather the facts. Examine the data. Apply immutable laws.

    How interesting.

  14. Drew says:

    @James Joyner: James


    But you struck such a chord I’ve been pondering this for a half hour. Have I forgotten things outside of chem 101, Strength of Materials 302 etc etc. like Psych 101. Yeah.

    But my last sentence in my comment – pure snark – what up with other vocations? Am I to understand that every history, philosophy, etc major just wasted 4 years and everything they learned is gone five years after graduation? Ouch.

    The hard sciences deal with the real world and how it works. Perhaps then, those who learn about those laws, principles, rules etc never forget them. They don’t change. But I’m struggling with the notion that, say, poly scie, is a fleeting understanding. A feather in the wind.


  15. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I for one am less concerned about the efficacy of various pedagogical techniques and more concerned about the ways in which today’s education systems entail flushing taxpayer money down toilets. It’s a bitter pill knowing that property tax dollars here in California are funding salaries and benefits for unionized, left-wing Moonbats, who spend good deals of their time indoctrinating very young minds into hazes of liberal idiocy. There’s also the problem of state income tax dollars funding complete nonsense at the likes of the UC and CS systems, and of course federal tax dollars subsidizing loans for kids all over the country to obtain useless college degrees.

    We need real school voucher programs. We need real student loan reforms. It’s tough enough to compete in the new world economy; it’s a lot tougher with an airheaded generation coming up through the ranks.

    On a separate but related topic, I can say from personal experience that the entire law school methodology needs to be scrapped. The dichotomy between what’s taught in law school and what occurs in actual legal practice is so enormous it boggles the mind. It hardly can be put into words. There’s not even a proper analogy for it.

    Now that the job market for law school grads has collapsed it verges on criminal what law schools are doing to law students. It was bad enough 20 years ago, but in this day and age these kids are being grifted like marks. That taxpayers ultimately are going to be on the hook for a material percentage of those tuition costs simply adds injury to insult. The bitter irony, however, is that law schools never will change their ways. It’s too good of a scam.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:


    Am I to understand that every history, philosophy, etc major just wasted 4 years and everything they learned is gone five years after graduation? Ouch.

    They don’t. There was a debate going on here a few days ago about the US auto industry, free trade, exporting jobs etc. and I was turning over Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage in my mind. I’ve largely forgotten about that debate but Ricardo remains more or less.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    The Martyr of Ekaterinburg….an argument for or against higher education?

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    I can say from personal experience that the entire law school methodology needs to be scrapped.

    Does this mean you failed the CA bar?

  19. Mikey says:

    I’ve always thought a significant factor in an employer’s requirement for a college degree is that having completed one indicates at least a reasonable aptitude for learning what they will want to teach you, as well as showing a level of persistence and the ability to delay gratification. If you’ll make the four-year slog to a Bachelor’s degree, you’re probably more likely to stick around the company for a while.

  20. I’ve linked to my recent-favorite Summers article. Rule one was:

    1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.

    I like JKB’s 1909 reference for the ‘synchronicity.’

    FWIW, my hard-science, chemistry, was very much about the learning process and how to find the journals. It was not “fill your head with chemistry in 4 years.”

  21. As an aside, I’m sure you all know that human memory is now known to be “worse” than previously accepted. Stories are condensed, not just in themselves, but they are combined with other similar experiences to form generics. The recall of an event may have elements added from similar situations, as well as dropped as inconsequential.

    We used to think memory was GIF, turns out it’s JPG.

  22. I also think James’ great division between “education” and “training” is (deeply) flawed, but certainly if we accept differences in university goals, we must ask why they all coalesce to a 4 year Baccalaureate.

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    I was a physics major. I became an engineer and retained much of what I learned in science classes because I used them as an engineer. I took German, I can still read it, speak it slowly and understand it if the speaker doesn’t speak too fast. I suspect this is because I actually lived in Germany for over three years. I don’t know if I remember anything from the history classes because I continued to study history after graduation because I liked it. Same applies to literature.

  24. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ron Beasley: PS, I think the most important thing you learn in college is how to learn.

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Same here to some extent. For example I re-read the age of innocence when Scorsese’s movie came out about twelve years ago but haven’t read the custom of the country or the house of mirth for nearly 50 years but I could still give a brief summary of the plots. How do I know this? There was an article in this week’s New Yorker about Wharton that discussed these novels and I understood it exactly and I only read these novels as a sort of sideline to my history major after doing a course on literature as reflection of the age (or something). Ditto numerous other books I haven’t read since school.

  26. Just 'nutha i'grant cracker says:

    @JKB: Ironically enough, what Murry was talking about was what I was taught to do relative to my students and my subject matter in education school (gasp). What I found out when I got into the school system was that most students don’t really want to work hard enough to learn the traits he talks about and that the state does interfere with the process because of its messy insistence on making sure that the public funds are spent efficiently. These types of skills are difficult to measure except over terms longer than oh, say 5-10 years by my estimation. Tangible results are also a little difficult to come by.

    So, the state relies of metrics that will satisfy the voters, and real learning gets downplayed (some). On the other hand there are the 3 or 4 occasional students who get it and do it. They become (especially if someone is lucky enough to come across a whole class of the or is especially charismatic) the movies that show the “miracles” worked by “gifted” teachers–Dangerous Minds and the like.

  27. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Drew: How much of that Shakespeare course that you took do you remember? Everybody remembers the stuff they use; that wasn’t the point at all.

  28. michael reynolds says:
  29. Drew says:

    How much of that Shakespeare course that you took do you remember? Everybody remembers the stuff they use; that wasn’t the point at all.

    Actually, I remember a tremendous amount from courses I didn’t subsequently use professionally. Perhaps most importantly, with the best degree I ever got: SHN, I learned that anyone who calls themselves nuther igrant cracker is not to be taken seriously.


    C’mon, dude. You know you drink those bacon shakes. crispy? Or fatty?

  30. HankP says:

    I think you’re looking at education the wrong way, at least a liberal arts education – and that includes the sciences. It’s not meant to be a purely utilitarian process that prepares you for a specific job or profession. You may have forgot all about class X, but others loved and remember class X while they forget class Y (which you took and still remember). People coming into a university are exposed to various fields of study not just so they can learn the subjects but also so they can learn themselves, and specifically what they’re good at and what they enjoy doing. It’s not meant to be purely efficient, it’s meant to allow discovery.

  31. Dood says:

    I have forgotten so much of my grade school/ high school/ college.

    …or have I?

    Sure, if I take an immediate “mental census” of the “knowledge” I know about science or language, I’m going to be pretty depressed about when I think I find. But as everyone is aware, the brain is an amazing thing and a lot lies beneath the surface.

    A vignette: I was in a very competitive job interview. As I sit down, I feel something on my shoulder. It’s his office plant. “Oh, sorry – it’s just attracted to your body heat.” he says. As I move the plant away, I say, “yeah, heliotropism.” Before that day I had never used that word, never thought about that word or concept and I hate plants. But somehow, someway, it stuck…from 6th grade. The interviewer just stared at me slack-jawed.

    I got the job.

  32. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Since I can remember Undine Spragg and haven’t read about her for 50 years it’s quite probable Drew can remember Cordelia or Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.

  33. mannning says:

    I never had a chance to converse with someone in Latin, so it utterly disappeared from my memory, except for a few handy phrases. The first chance I had to chat in Spanish with my high school courses as starters was in Spain perhaps 30 years on, and it didn’t go very well; the man suggested that his English was much better than my Spanish. I found myself in Paris during air show time, and tried out my college French on the cabbie; after he quit snickering, he suggested that where I really wanted to go was Le Bourget airport, not le borges. I was glad to get out and flee.

    When I moved to Holland, it took a large part of five years to become barely conversant in Dutch, since the lingua franca of the firm I was working for was..English, because of NATO standardization, and to be very nationalistic the Philips Eindhoven company had managed to produce Dutch terms for every technical matter in existence, including all computer terms, radar, sonar, ESM/ECM, controls, gunnery and even space; which they insisted we all use. Thus papers were written in English, then translated into Dutch with the use of many English terms, and then retranslated into the official Philips version of Dutch, before forwarding them to the parent company. When the HQ visitors were in attendance, it was official Philips Dutch time, or else. I kept quiet for two years, except when they condescended to break into English for my benefit.

    So there were essentially English and two dialects of Dutch in the workplace, plus a third because of the Twense dialect of the locale, not to mention that we regularly shopped over the border in Germany and had to pick up some of the shopping phrases we needed, and also watched German TV programs to pick up more.

    Meanwhile, we used English to get the work done, and actually to go and do just about anywhere, except in the cities and countryside where the locals stayed with their dialects; it seems that every city in Holland has a characteristic dialect, and it is often difficult for Dutchmen from different areas to converse with themselves because of the gulf of dialects between them. Hence the advent of “Hliversum Dutch” which is the high standard for spoken Dutch.

    This was 20 years ago, and to my surprise I found a Dutch website here, and managed to make sense out of it. Ik wil naar Schipol gaan, alstu! (I want to go to Schipol please.) And be right!.

    I agree with the learning to learn, and learning to think comments above as the main purpose of education. But some things must stay with you to make your career profitable, especially in technical fields. My Physics and Math was used throughout my career in designing and developing computer-based systems for the military. But I never found use for tensors.

    In the language domain, not only are our teachers deplorable, and the methods stale, we do not really believe in learning foreign languages the way they do in Europe. My children were fluent in Dutch inside of three months by immersion in the Dutch school system, and they went on to higher degrees…one took Dutch law, in Dutch, of course. They had German and French mastered in the next several years, as well as coasting through the required English courses. My oldest became our official French guide, since she was complemented on her Parisian French… in Paris. The lesson is simple: start language learning early and use total immersion.

    One further comment: Once having had a course in some subject, if the occasion arises where you need that knowledge again, it comes to you far, far faster the second time around, and you know the proper sources for help. The same is true of books you read once. It goes so much faster the second time. It awakens your latent memory of the subject.