The Tools of Memory
By Rev. Luke Davis
Far from being a rote exercise in busywork, memory is one of the key elements of a humane education.
The question came out of nowhere. My Church History class would be taking their memory quiz on the Nicene Creed within a week and, as was my habit, I led them all in reciting the Creed aloud together. It is part of my modus operandi to do so in advance of a memory quiz. The more we say something aloud together, the more its truth is imprinted within us, and the students will have better recall and understanding of it. Occasionally I ask them what certain words or phrases mean (“eternally begotten,” “remission of sins,” etc.), but the focus is building shared moments for deep remembrance.
And then one student asked, “I mean, why are we doing this?”
He didn’t mean why are we saying it aloud. He didn’t mean why are we exploring the meaning and importance of the Council itself. He meant Why do we have to memorize stuff? He wasn’t even saying it in a mean-spirited or sullen manner. My student really wanted to know why memorization has to happen in a classroom setting. Is it for practical reasons? Aesthetic considerations? In a rare moment of personal clarity, I offered him several reasons, many of which are outlined below.
I would argue that the craft of memorization—especially memorization of key, enduring sources and magnificent texts—is part of what fashions an educated person, an intelligent community, and a more human existence for our students and ourselves. When we devalue memorization, we do so at our peril.
Memorization is critical, because when you engage wholeheartedly in that discipline, you are creating new worlds in your mind and soul, worlds of truth-storage. You are depositing glorious details within yourself for the “A-ha!” moments to come, and they will come. Another piece I have my students memorize is Theodulph of Orleans’ medieval hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Students can be quick to recognize that the lines refer to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and—with some prodding—they can recall that a few days later, Jesus faced humiliation and death. I then share with them that Theodulph was a bishop who was well known for educational reform under Charlemagne, but after the king died, Theodulph was falsely implicated in a conspiracy against his successor. Banished to a monastery at Angers, France, he wrote the words of the hymn, finding solace in his own trials that Jesus faced anguish after others had lauded him.
Interestingly enough, one year when my students completed their final exam, one eleventh-grader did not perform as well as he wished. I remarked how calm and resolute he appeared in spite of that. His reason? “Well,” he said, “I remembered that hymn we memorized. I remembered that Jesus went through much worse than I go through, so that gave me some perspective.”
Secondly, when we memorize great texts, deep in the core of our beings, we begin to perform beyond what we imagine are our limits. Many studies have been done on how memorization increases neural plasticity. When my students first see the Nicene Creed in front of them, their initial reaction is “No way can I memorize that!” Yet after just two or three weeks of communal recitation, they recognize they are getting better. Our brains form new pathways that make it possible for more complex and deeper learning. This is much like the routines of athletic training, which provide an athlete a basis for getting better at her sport. Do we want more intelligent students who can break through the perceived barriers of learning? A dedication to memorization is one way to get them there.
I would add a third reason to commit to in-class memorization: it teaches discipline, so that one can persevere in a multitude of life circumstances. Memorization is demanding work. It should be. The demanding nature not only makes it worthy work, but memorization is transformative, changing us more and more into creatures who—“made a little lower than the angels”—tackle life with courage. When I was in seminary, Dr. Collins required us to memorize Isaiah 9:6-7 for our midterm in Old Testament Prophets—in the original Hebrew. That turned a four-hour study session into ten hours. I spent six hours alone memorizing the Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:6-7, writing and rewriting it, until I could nail it perfectly. I am not saying one needs a seminary education to acquire perseverance. I can say, though, that I have a rather insane desire never to quit on myself or other people, and I know this is largely born of the fact that my passion for learning and remembering complex passages has translated into perseverance, not only in academics but across the board. So, if we teachers are educating students to become more human and to cultivate true virtue, the craft of memorization deepens the resolve to face rough waters, be it in employment, relationships, spiritual angst, anywhere.
Rev. Luke H. Davis is Bible department chairman at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, where he teaches ethics and church history classes. He has written lyrics to over eighty new hymns, as well as several novels, and he serves as assisting priest at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Chesterfield, MO. Luke and his wife Christi live with their family in nearby St. Charles.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like this piece on the liberal arts in Catholic education or this profile of the work of Edmund Husserl. And be sure to take a look at some contributions from our top students, like this essay on the value of studying music or this student art showcase from the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.