Why We Memorize

young_girl_readingMemorization is a dying art. Luckily for our students, Smith Prep is zealously committed to its preservation. We realize this won’t strike all of our students as good luck. But we believe our students will thanks us in the long run.

Memorization used to be a standard component of every student’s education, from the earliest years right through college. But for a variety of reasons, the practice declined over the course of the 20th century. Today, in the age of “just Google it,” it is even more unfashionable than ever to memorize anything. This is a grave mistake.

Writing of education before the decline of memorization, George Steiner observed, “Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart — a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit.”

“The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources,” Steiner added, “is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an afterculture.”

It seems obvious enough, of course, that we are commanded in the Bible to commit Scripture to memory. The old-fashioned phrase for this is to “learn it by heart.” This is a telling phrase because only if we learn something by heart have we taken it to heart. In other words, committing words to memory makes those words a part of us in a real and meaningful way.

We understand why this would be important with the Word of God, but why would we want to do this with the work of poets and playwrights? First, while Scripture obviously carries a unique and ultimate authority, it does not follow that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be found, by God’s common grace, in the work of those who bear God’s image.

Secondly, internalizing these poetic and literary patterns of language can help us with our own writing. Not that we would necessarily be writing poetry, but we would be picking up an innate sense of what the English language can do and an instinct for verbal constructions that we might not get any other way. The most common advice for writers given by professional writers tends to be read as much good prose as possible. The second most common piece of advice is to memorize poetry.

Finally, memorization is also about being initiated into a tradition. In this case, it is the tradition of Western civilization. It’s not a flawless tradition, as we know, but there is much in it that is beautiful and glorious and worthy of our attention and devotion.

In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a popular and controversial article titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The title is misleading, but the article is compelling. If you’ve never read it, you should. Near the end of the essay, Carr quoted the poet Richard Foreman:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

Foreman went on say that we were becoming “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” The trend toward becoming “pancake people” is one that ought to be resisted. The “cathedral-like structure” Foreman described is what we ought to be after. The foundations of that cathedral are laid by committing to memory as much of what has been true, good, and beautiful in our tradition as we can. We help our students make a small start of it at Smith Prep.

You can find poems to memorize, and some advice on how to do it, here: Committed to Memory. See also “In Defense of Memorization” and “On Assigning Books.”

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