Invariably at some point in the semester a student will ask me, “Do we really have to memorize all this?” implying of course that my request to memorize a dozen or so lines of Shakespeare and recite it in front of the class is not only completely unreasonable but also a thorough waste of time for all parties involved. Unfortunately for them, I disagree. The ability to remember and to memorize is an interesting and complex process. Throughout the course of a day we are constantly remembering. Some things we just need to remember for a few seconds, like a number to “carry over” in a math problem or perhaps a salient point needed to persuade a friend to see things your way. God has given this unique ability—the ability to hold onto certain pieces of information for short time periods for very specific purposes—only to humans. Using our short term memory activates our pre-frontal lobe, a highly developed region of the brain.
How do pieces of information move from our short term memory to our long term memory? Simply put, the hippocampus, a small sea horse shaped part of the brain, is the area of the brain responsible for this transfer. Every piece of information decoded in the sensory area of the cortex converges in the hippocampus which sorts through them and sends them back where they came from. The hippocampus compares these new sensations to previously recorded ones and creates associations and connections with other things we remember. When we remember new facts by repeating them, using mnemonic devices, or by connecting them to other things we know, the hippocampus continually strengthens the associations among these new elements until it no longer needs to do so. Eventually, the cortex has learned to associate these various new facts itself and is able to reconstruct a ‘memory’.
Perhaps as a student you remember reciting times tables over and over and over and over so you could ace that mad minute or maybe you remember being part of a school play and having to memorize hundreds of lines for that big performance. Or perhaps, you had an English teacher that forced you to memorize a famous soliloquy from Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you remember staying up half the night to memorize the table of elements or a multitude of physics formulas. I think the more mature among us could attest that memorization played much more of a role in school forty years ago than it does today.
And so what? Is it important to memorize Canada’s prime ministers? What about all the provinces and territories and their capital cities? Should everyone know Lincoln’s famous address at Gettysburg? What about snippets of the Constitution? How about Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”? Should we all know a Shakespearian sonnet or two or be able to quote something from The Merchant of Venice? How about a chronological list of major world events? Or, is this an old fashioned whim, nothing more than a nostalgic notion in the age of the internet and Wikipedia? Why remember anything when you can just “Google it”? Would we be better off outsourcing our memory to our iPhone?
Dave Schuler in his article, “From Memory” argues that there is a massive difference between being able to find information and actually living with it inside you. He likens it to owning a Persian rug and being able to find a picture of one on Google Images. Schuler argues, and rightly so, that memorizing poetry and other texts make them “part of the cadence and subtext of your thought and speech.” Perhaps Lincoln’s speeches would not have had their effect and force if he hadn’t committed parts of the King James translation of the Bible and parts of Shakespeare’s plays to memory. Further, Schuler points out that an underlying cause of our impoverished daily discourse is the transition to memorizing advertising slogans rather than classic poetry.
Many progressive educators don’t like rote learning citing that exercises in memorization are nothing more than archaic curiousity with little to no educative value. Forcing students to memorize classical poetry is an oppressive act, one that promotes a culture of servility and hampers creativity. Students need to construct their own meaning from authentic and dynamic experiences. Few educators will deny that students do need to construct their own meaning from what they have learned. If a lesson is taught and a student does nothing but memorize a few key lines, the value of that memorization is little. Memorization without understanding is having useful information but not knowing where it fits in context.
Kids need poetry and memorization, Michael Beran argues in his article “In Defence of Memorization”. And they need it not just because of the rewards rote learning offers: the sense of poetry, the heightened feel for language, the abundance of tales and myths, the turning on of their language capability and enhancement of their language store. Most importantly, kids need poetry and memorization because the power of memorization lies in its ability to introduce them to their cultural inheritance of Western civilization. Knowing what came before them improves their cultural literacy and it “etches the ideals of their civilization on their minds and hearts.” According to Beran, these older educative techniques, and not the ‘progressive’ ones, are the techniques that nurture critical thinking and enable students to articulate their own thoughts and feelings and give them the ability to question authority intelligently.
Based on this line of thinking, should we make more room for memorization in our community? Do we find that our dependence on technology makes this goal difficult, if not impossible? Should we be worried that our reliance on technology is separating our society from the past? Do we sometimes have the tendency to think that we are the first people to have ever lived? Is the igeneration’s philosophy of “Leave me alone, I’ll figure it out by myself with Google” starting to rub off? Teachers, especially those teaching the humanities, wrestle with what exactly the function of the memory in the 21st century should be. If our students have almost instant access to everything, should they even bother memorizing anything? Even if we agree that memorization is important, what should we all know off by heart? Is there a set of core knowledge in every subject area that everyone should know perfectly?
I won’t pretend to have all the answers to these difficult questions but I do think memorization should continue to play a vital role in education. And so, my students will continue to memorize, for through memorization they remember “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” and “The quality of mercy is not strained”; they understand the need to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” for “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day”.