Rote memorization

87 years ago…

I’ve been musing on rote memorization. One reason is a column in the Boston Globe, The blessing of ‘rote’ memory by Jeff Jacoby. The subtitle: “Memorization for its own sake has long been unfashionable. It shouldn’t be.”

Jacoby notes: “There was a time when memorization was a standard feature of American schooling. In 1927, New York City’s board of education directed grade school teachers to teach poetry to pupils, with particular emphasis on the use of rhythm, diction, and imagery.”

Of course, “it isn’t only literature that can be memorized. The elements of the periodic table, the names and locations of the 50 states, the 46 US presidents, the first 100 digits of pi, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, all the best picture Oscar winners — the list is literally endless…

“Everyone memorizes some things — the multiplication tables, their Social Security number, song lyrics, the Wi-Fi password, family members’ birthdays — but memorization for its own sake has long since gone out of favor.” I was not specifically aware of that trend.

Lowest form?

“Writing in The American Scholar more than 40 years ago, the late Clara Claiborne Park, a professor of English at Williams College, commented on the disdain with which professional educators dismissed learning material by heart as mere ‘rote memory.’ She quoted one college president who sneeringly called memorization ‘the lowest form of human intellectual activity.'”

Jacoby pushes back. “But there is nothing ‘low’ about mastering a block of information so effectively that you can surface it at will… You don’t have to be a ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant to relish having instant recall of thick slices of knowledge. Memorization takes work, but there is joy in the accumulation of knowledge that requires no googling.”

I’ve actually gotten pushback in this blog about this in the past. Why remember it when you can just look it up? To which I’ve indicated the joy – yes, that’s the word – of knowing stuff.

The Word

When I used to attend a Friday Night Bible Club for several years, roughly from fourth through tenth grade, Pat, the woman running it, suggested that we should try to memorize Bible verses. To this day, I still remember Psalm 119:11, in the King James Version, of course. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

Memorization was also the recommendation at her church, Primitive Methodist in Johnson City, coincidentally very close to where my parents would move after I went to college. I remember one of the PM teens selected John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” It wasn’t explicitly stated, but I have long thought that this process was suggested in case the Communists took over the country and took all of our Bibles.

Music allowed me to cheat somewhat. Because I know the anthem God So Loved the World, I can cite John 3:17. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

A college friend of mine surprisingly got into a brief but intense Christian phase. They recommended that I memorize all of the books of the Bible, and I dutifully did so.

Now? Well, I can get through the Pentateuch, then Joshua Judges Ruth, which, not incidentally, is the title of a Lyle Lovett CD that I own. Then the twofer history books, which are in reverse alpha order: 1st and 2nd Samuel, Kings, Chronicles. The history section ends with EastNortheast; I mean Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and… a couple more. The five major prophets, then I totally fall apart over the 12 minor prophets. I’m better with the New Testament, but some of the epistles – where IS Philemon? -are a bit shaky.

Lousy memory

I did really well with math tables. I know the Social Security numbers of my wife and daughter. And I used to remember all the area codes, and the geography they represented when the codes had a zero or one in the middle. Also, I’m rather good with birthdays.

But rote memorization of words was/is tougher. I struggled with the Emancipation Proclamation, which is only two minutes long. I could never be a leading actor because I couldn’t absorb the lines. In high school, I was the Fire Chief in Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. I couldn’t remember some soliloquy, so someone put it on a scroll, which I took out and read, then flung towards the audience.

Yet I DO know the Presidents, which helped on JEOPARDY; the order of Beatles album releases (US AND UK), and most of the MLB players who hit more than 500 home runs.

The one thing I actively tried to instill into my child’s brain was the names of the states. Not exactly in alphabetical order, but the four A states, the three C states et al.

Recently, Kelly thanked his 7th grade English teacher for forcing his class to memorize a particular poem that he learned to hate, but since…

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

One thought on “Rote memorization”

  1. My maternal grandmother (born about 1900), who didn’t go very far in school (married young) could recite lots of poetry from memory; she was required to learn it in school. Even 80 years later, even after she had gone blind, she could call up those poems from memory.

    I memorized a few in high school (I went to a prep school that was perhaps still a bit more traditional) – one of my English classes did it, and my Advanced French Language and Literature class required we memorize and recite (in correct French) a number of poems. I remember bits of them now. More of the Shakespeare we did in another English class…

    I know the words to most of the familiar hymns so I don’t need the hymnal – music makes things easier to remember. That’s also how I remember the Preamble to the Constitution*, from the Schoolhouse Rock short cartoons on tv when I was a kid

    (*yes, for scansion, the Schoolhouse Rock version omits “of the United States” from the very beginning, and I’m aware of that and insert it if I’m formally reciting it)

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