By Norb Rug
Sometimes my memory fails me. I occasionally wander around my home looking for my cane. Sometimes I walk into a room and wonder why I went there. Occasionally, it is because I am looking for my cane.
I couldn’t tell you what I ate for breakfast two days ago and when I ask my wife what we are having for dinner I get an “I told you twice already.” But if you asked me to recite the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost I could do it without missing a beat. For some strange reason, that poem, which I learned in high school 5½ decades ago, remains imprinted in my brain, like a tattoo on my subconscious.
While this feat sometimes surprises me, it would have been considered normal throughout most of human history. A half-century ago, children were expected to memorize poetry and literary works. Today, reciting literature that has been memorized is such an unexpected skill that it reminds us of people we know who can recite “Jabberwocky” from memory.
In the time before every single bit of literature was an internet search away and most television hosts simply read a teleprompter, it was normal for people to memorize things. They would commit to memory poems and political speeches among other things. I had a teacher who made our class memorize the short preamble to the Constitution. He required us to repeat it over and over again until we got it exactly right.
A few years ago I was asked to give a speech. I drove my wife crazy in the weeks up until the date I was supposed to give it by walking around the house reciting it. I kept repeating the speech I had written until I could say it without looking at the pages.
I think it is silly to require students to just memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or even an excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech without an in-depth analysis of them. I believe that memorization isn’t valuable as a learning technique at all. The fact you can regurgitate something you have read does not mean you understood it.
Nowadays, where you can store all your phone numbers on your cellphone and where you can look up virtually anything on the internet, we don’t have a need to memorize anything anymore. We also have MapQuest and GPS devices so you don’t have to remember how to get somewhere. I can remember spelling tests and having to learn the multiplication tables. All that has been made moot by spellcheckers and calculators and many of these are on your smartphone.
Memorization seems like a forgotten skill from another time, a skill for the Renaissance man.
But memorization is not yet dead. It still exists all around us. You just don’t recognize it. Who among us hasn’t been driving down the road when a familiar song comes on the radio, wrapping us in a blanket of warm memories? I can think of a number of people that can sing Bob Dylan’s songs or songs by the Grateful Dead.
It’s the songs by the Beatles and Elvis and not the works of Shakespeare or Edger Allen Poe that we remember now. So it isn’t a lack of memorization skills but selective memory. I think that we tend to remember what has meaning for us and forget what isn’t important to us.
Norb Rug is a writer from Lockport who blogs at WhyWNY.home.blog.