Memorization creates meaning
I’ll admit it. There was a time that I disdained memorizing. For some reason, I believed that memorization was no more than something one did in order to regurgitate information later.
And I had experience to back up my prejudice. For example, I remember as a high school student memorizing dates and names for my social studies and history classes. As an undergraduate student, I remember staying up late memorizing lists of philosophers and theories for my Western civilization courses. For my graduate degree, I remember memorizing eligibility criteria for a special education class.
As a result, committing the data for those classes to memory had resulted in decent test grades. (And sure, without working to retain all that information, many of the facts were lost eventually.) However, as much as I knew from experience that memorizing had helped me to learn new material, it seems rather odd that I used to look down on “memory work.”
So why did I look down on memorization?
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains offers one reason that seems sensible. Carr observes that the rejection of memory work became a popular notion during the early 20th century. He writes, “…by the middle of the twentieth century memorization itself had begun to fall from favor. Progressive educators banished the practice from classrooms, dismissing it as a vestige of a less enlightened time.” It seems I had adopted this way of thinking, since many of my secondary education teachers in the late 1970s and early 1980s would have been the progressive educators Carr wrote about. I grew up simply during an era when memory work was out of vogue.
But I’ve had a change of heart, and now I think differently about the purpose and power of memorization. I attribute my change in thinking primarily to two things: 1) The Shallows and 2) my own experience with memorizing Shakespearean sonnets.
Based on these two things, I would like to share one key insight this week:
Memorization is more than storage. It creates meaning.
In other words, memorizing something isn’t just a useless, rote activity. It may seem that way at the outset, but the material being memorized takes on greater personal significance as the material is taken inside the mind, repeated and recalled time and again (repetition is key and worth another blog post!), and finally, recited orally to oneself or a listener.
In Chapter 9 (titled “Search, Memory”) of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carr has some interesting things to say about the value of memory work, including that it is much more than a mere rote activity.
Carr writes that the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus believed that “memorizing is more than storing information. It’s the first step in the process of synthesizing, a process that led to deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179). In other words, we don’t memorize to merely pack more data into our brains; we memorize to understand better.
I have experienced this “synthesizing” in my own memorization work, which I began during my first year of teaching Shakespearean sonnets in my senior British literature classes at my previous school. Based on its beauty alone (and some difficulty I experienced while teaching it the first time), I decided to memorize Shakespeare’s beloved Sonnet 18, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
As I worked to memorize that sonnet, its fourteen lines became, iamb by iamb, imbued with deeper meaning. As I repeatedly read the lines, observed the meter, and referenced the rhyme to memorize the verse, that beautiful sonnet grew in significance and personal meaning. I began to internalize the sonnet, discovering nuances of emotion I had not experienced when I merely read it aloud earlier.
By the way, what does memorization have to do with student engagement? Nicholas Carr asserts that the more we use the Internet to recall information, the more we train our brain to be distracted.
Internalization is key. Carr writes that to the Roman philosopher Seneca, (4 BC-65 AD), memory was as much “crucible as container.” In other words, the act of memorizing something enabled one to construct new meaning as much as retain it. In my own mental crucible, what previously seemed murky about Sonnet 18 had become clarified as I committed it to memory.
As a consequence to my memorizing Sonnet 18, my teaching of Sonnet 18 improved. I could speak more confidently of, for example, its connotations and interpretations. I could relate it to my own personal experience and provide additional context to students as I saw the sonnet’s ideas reflected, for instance, in contemporary life and media.
After memorizing Sonnet 18, I added Sonnet 116. Then, I eventually added Sonnets 28, 55, and 130 to my repertoire. Right now, I’m working on Sonnet 73.
Hidden in the shadows of obsolete vocabulary and early modern English syntax, it’s definitely true that I struggled to understand the meaning of significant portions of each sonnet prior to memorizing. However, the continued exposure to the poems over days, weeks, and months through repetitive reading and reciting (mostly done while driving my 40-minute commute) greatly informed my comprehension of them.
Eventually, by the time I had completely memorized them, those poems had achieved a personal and significant clarity that had not been possible by reading alone. Memorization had worked its magic.
I contend that knowing something and being able to recall it from memory has invaluable benefits. As Carr implies in The Shallows, we are cheating ourselves of greater meaning and pleasure when we bypass this often-dismissed tool.
Thanks for reading!
Have you heard this argument from a student: why try to remember something if we can just google it? The premise of this question is based on the notion that memorizing information is a pointless activity, since — as long as there’s a WiFi connection — we can always just go online for knowledge as we need it. I hope this post has offered a new perspective on the value of memorizing.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on my Contact page. Have a great week!
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