In Defense of Memorization



It is not fashionable these days – nor has it been for some twenty-five years – to advocate for memorization in teaching.

You hear people saying of their favorite teachers, “He wasn’t just about rote memorization” or “She didn’t just make us memorize facts” or “They wanted us to actually appreciate X” — as if memorization somehow necessarily precludes appreciation.

Even in ACE, which inevitably adopts some of the latest teaching theories (often for good but sometimes not), I remember getting the impression that having my students internalize “enduring understandings” was far more important than having them internalize “facts.”

The National Education Association’s article last year has a title that sums up the popular view quite well: “Deeper Learning: Moving Students Beyond Memorization.”

Reread that title again, and think about the either-or logical fallacy it is using.

An excerpt:

The focus on memorization, fueled by standardized testing, has obstructed learning, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who argues that students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school.

But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. Enter “deeper learning” – the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations. Students “transfer” knowledge rather than just memorize it. The benefits of deeper learning, says Darling-Hammond, can’t be overstated. (Luke Towler)

It’s interesting that Towler says memorization is “fueled by standardized testing.” At least in terms of the ACT or SAT, memorization will not get you very far at all. These are skills-based tests that care very little whether or not you know what synecdoche is or what year the first Constitutional Congress met or even if you can articulate the definition of an independent clause.

It is true that the SAT and ACT are the kinds of tests one must learn how to attack — students who spend lots of money on tutoring institutions which study how theses tests work usually do far better than those who go in blind. But this sort of thing has very little to do with memorization.

Note the definition of “deeper learning” in Towler’s article: “the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations” (emphasis added). I can’t tell you how many times, as a teacher, I have been told to make content more relevant for my kids by making it “real-world” applicable.

The implication, of course, is that memorization of facts, no matter how true or important those facts are, will not prepare you for the “real world.” By which term, I suspect, these people mean the “world” of business and money and career. This, for them, is the “real world.”

My first couple of years of teaching, I remember myself saying to students who were anxiously peppering me before their tests, “Don’t worry, you do not have to have all of the names of the characters in The Scarlet Letter memorized — what is far more important to me is that you can discuss their internal motivations, etc.”

They would always sigh with relief. “Internal motivations” can be faked. Names and dates cannot.

I, too, often assumed a dichotomy between memorization and deeper understanding. As if memorization is easy and understanding is hard, or as if memorization is shallow and understanding sophisticated.

And yet when I went to the University of Dallas, I was required during my junior year summative project on poetry to — you guessed it — memorize a poem.

Of course, you had to do more than that.

After having dedicated your entire intellectual – (and, I would argue, emotional) – life to a great poet for a semester, you had to choose an “exemplary” poem and memorize it. This poem of your choosing had to be one that “exemplified” the key characteristics of your poet. After memorizing it, you had to prepare an explication of the poem that you presented two a panel of three professors, who afterwards would bombard you with any questions about your poet’s body of work that they wished.

In his well-written Atlantic article, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning”, Ben Orlin argues “Raw rehearsal is the worst way to learn something. It eats up time and requires no real thinking.”

Well, yes. It does eat up time. I spent many hours practicing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur with my college friends that I could have spent instead thinking deeply about how meter affects meaning or how Frost and Stevens had influenced Wilbur’s style.

To make matters worse, most junior poet veterans advised us to memorize more than one poem. So I also memorized “The Beautiful Changes,” “A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” “October Maples: Portland” and a few Emily Dickinson poems for good measure.

Yet I found, at least with poetry, that “raw rehearsal” requires a good deal of “real thinking.” In fact, you cannot really know a poem well unless you memorize it – unless you make it a part of you – unless you allow its sound, its structure, its diction to become so ingrained in your subconscious mind that when you see the wind jostling the leaves on the oak tree, you think to yourself,

I crave Him grace of Summer Boughs,

If such an Outcast be –

Who never heard that fleshless Chant –

Rise – solemn – on the Tree […]

(Emily Dickinson, “321”)

Or, when you see autumn in its New England glory, you say to yourself:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.

(Richard Wilbur, “October Maples: Portland”)

As I said in my previous post, having poems committed to memory in your emotional arsenal equips you very well for the complexities of life. Even if I cannot fully articulate my experience of losing my students year after year, Elizabeth Bishop can.

And if you don’t like poetry very much, you probably do like songs. And we learn songs by heart for much the same reason. Music can express for us what otherwise cannot be expressed. Even my high school students understand that.

I would agree with the post-modern educational elite that memorization, by itself, is not a very high level of thinking. But I would also insist that it is a prerequisite for deeper thinking in many fields, especially literature. And I suspect the same is true for math, science and social studies as well.

If Calvin (see above cartoon) knows the pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620, and knows a few more meaningless dates besides, he has the groundwork for constructing a timeline for American history in his head.

For Catholics, Christians, and Jews, memorization is a key part of the spiritual life. Jesus evidently had many of the Psalms engraved upon his heart, such that even in his last agony on the Cross, he found expression for his suffering in the words of Psalm 22.

Mary, too, composed her Magnificat with the songs of Miriam in Ex 15:21, Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10, Deborah in Judges 5 clearly in mind (see Biblegateway).

Their “rote memorization” of biblical texts, probably in childhood, clearly paved the way for a deeper understanding of God’s mysterious working in their later lives.

Memorized texts, poems and facts cannot, by themselves, make an educated mind. But they can lay the groundwork. They can give the human heart things to hold onto when faced with true mystery.



Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Teaching

2 responses to “In Defense of Memorization

  1. I’m currently teaching high school and middle school History, and this is obviously an issue that comes up constantly. How many rote facts do the students need in order to grasp the basic scheme of history. Obviously there are dates and names that cannot be left out or else the whole historical narrative turns into a hazy mesh of cool stories and interesting frames without meaning or direction. But I always aim to reduce the amount of facts to a minimum and always weave a supporting narrative around them. Still, great article, it’s made me wonder if my minimalist style is best.

  2. Pingback: Memorizing Poetry | Junior Ganymede

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