The Tools of Memory
By Rev. Luke Davis
Memory is key not only to education, but to relationship and virtue.
Previously, I shared several thoughts on teaching—what I think are good, essential reasons why teachers need to implement the craft of memorization in their pedagogy. However, like the wind in western Kansas, there are more justifications swirling around. Why should dedicated memorization of great texts occur in the classroom?
A keen focus on memorization builds self-confidence in one’s knowledge, and other people can have confidence that you are a solid thinker and applier of abiding wisdom. If we think about it, we carry this assumption throughout daily life. Let’s say I take my Toyota Sienna to my mechanic and express concern that there is a problem with the timing belt. What am I likely to think if said mechanic hops into my car, snags the car manual from my glove compartment, and starts rifling through the pages, muttering, “Hang on, sir. I just need to read in here about it. Maybe I can figure out what a timing belt is and what I should do?” Long story short, he would not be my mechanic any longer. I don’t expect him to be ignorant on an issue that should be automatic!
In the same vein, when my students occasionally ask, “Why do we have to memorize things? We can always Google information!” I would pose the following scenarios: would you go to a doctor who nervously Googles your symptoms when you’re ill, or an attorney who must check a book to discover the definition of property rights? If a candidate to teach geometry does not know the formula for bisecting an angle, but says he can “look that up before teaching the kids,” would we select such a person for staff in our schools?
On the other hand, when we memorize a Scripture verse, we establish ourselves as increasing masters of biblical truth. When a student memorizes a portion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, she becomes a greater expert on the civil rights movement than she was before. When a five-year-old delivers one of Aesop’s fables word-for-word, his face beams with the joy that he grasps the moral truths of the lines he just uttered. We become more confident in our abilities, and others gladly see we are becoming more tenacious scholars of the majestic ideas of humanity.
Another key reason to develop the discipline of memorization in the classroom has to do with our everyday human relationships. Yes, friendship and love have to do with more than just knowledge, but every relationship has some sort of basis in knowledge. Will you have good friendships if you don’t remember the names of your friends’ spouses or children, or simple details about their lives? A stored reservoir of memorized knowledge is a primary aspect of our human relationships. If someone asks me when my wife’s birthday is, unless I want the quickest of all marriage fractures, I do not say, “Well, I’ll look that up or ask her.” What about where she was born? Where we met? Our first date? Committing matters like these to memory is essential. Of course marriage is more than that, but it is not less. Thus, when we require our students to memorize texts, sources, lists, and so on, we are preparing them for commitments they will make to others. It is not just for a grade or a certificate. We are shaping them to connect to the people they care about most deeply.
That point about being connected to others leads me to my final point: committing to the craft of memorization in the classroom makes us more human. We discover the core of the ancient Bantu word Ubuntu, which loosely translated means, “I am who I am because of who we are together.” The great creeds, speeches, and texts that we have our students tackle must be part of an enduring tradition of human activity and noble thought, so that when we memorize and recite these great words, we are aware of becoming increasingly human. When children memorize and recite the Ten Commandments, for example, they mystically join with the assembly of ancient Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, the storm and fire around them and the verbal promises of God spoken from the slopes of that crag, part of a people seeking to live the Good Life. When students memorize and recite the difference between cheap and costly grace from The Cost of Discipleship, they sit in the prison cell with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the price of standing up to Nazi Germany hits them, and they begin to muse, “Could I be like him? What would I do? I would want to do the noble thing.” When students recite portions of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, they should think, “She has to fight and scrap for what is hers. What is stopping me from coming alongside others and being their advocate and help for their freedom and rights?”
To disdain memorization, then, is to risk becoming less human. Great words, memorized and recited, place us with our forebears. We thus discover that we can be with them, are already somewhat like them, and become more human through the empathy we foster in the process. To me, these factors make it all worth it—this great, demanding, noble work of memorization.
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 liked this brief series, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this discussion of the role of poetry in education or this series on classic literature in Black history. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.