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…

Sometimes it works out

The G.I. Bill Restoration Act

sometimes it works outThis is one of those Day In The Life posts I’m calling Sometimes it works out. It is about April 26, 2022, which started with Wordle in 3 (HEIST).

My Bible guys have been meeting remotely since the start of the pandemic. Given the demographics – I’m the youngest of the group – I’m guessing that’s the way it’ll remain. One of the seven was traveling, one had an appointment. Another had trouble getting on ZOOM. Yet we persevere.

One of the readings was 1 Corinthians 15, which is a long chapter. Very familiar. No. 46 of Handel’s Messiah is Since by man came death, from verses 21 and 22. Then No. 47 through 51 show up in verses 51 to 57, starting with Behold, I shew you a mystery.

This led to a question, Who selected the libretto? I knew it wasn’t Handel but forgot it was Charles Jennens, “an English aristocrat who collaborated with Handel on several other oratorios.”

Lost money

While looking for my bus pass – which turned out to be in the wrong part of my wallet from its usual place – I found a stale-dated check for $18.71 on my dresser. If it had been a larger amount, I probably would have remembered to look for it. What it was doing on my dresser, as opposed to my wallet or my mail drawer, I don’t know.

The weird thing is that I can remember the amount without looking again because it is the second calendar year of the Franco-Prussian War, although the event actually lasted less than 12 months. Why I couldn’t use Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as a device… the mind does what it does.

The talk

The Friends and Foundation of the Albany Public Library have just restarted their weekly book review/book talk. A hole in the schedule developed and I volunteered to talk about The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which I talked about at church adult ed ZOOM a year ago.

I was going to use the 17-minute video Segregated by Design, narrated by Rothstein, but I couldn’t get the sound to work; nor could three library techies.

So I vamped a bit before abandoning the possibility of the video, and talked about The G.I. Bill Restoration Act, “recently introduced in the House of Representatives. This legislation would give financial benefits to descendants and spouses of Black veterans who fought in WWII, but were excluded from aid outlined in the original G.I. Bill.”

This led to conversations about my father, who never lived in a house of his own until 1972, and made me wonder whether he had tried to utilize the original G.I. Bill. Over a million black World War II vets were denied from using it. This led to my sharing a story of my father’s experiences in Germany. I found I  LIKED talking about my dad.

Oh, I left the book at the library, but I got it back the following week.

Social Security

I went to the Social Security office. My wife is working on financial stuff for my daughter’s college and needs how much I received from Social Security in 2020. The amount I got in automatic deposits I know, but the amount paid for Part B Medicare IDK. The 2021 breakdown is on the Social Security page, but not the year before.

After getting the info from the agent, I asked about money owed to my daughter for the three months between her 18th birthday and her high school graduation. The paperwork had been submitted in early February but rejected in March because she wasn’t in high school. Except that she WAS/IS. I had to appeal this before May 3.

The agent suggested that the agency hadn’t received the proper form from the high school, which I had put in the mail in February. But they looked on the computer for a few minutes. They said the info was indeed there but that the agency had not processed it for reasons unclear to me. I took the bus, only mildly confident that my daughter would get the payments in a timely manner.

There you go

That was a someone atypical Tuesday. Unrelated, as I wrote to someone, “If you forget things on a daily basis, you should try remembering them weakly.”

The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict

compassion, kindness

verdictI’m trying to contextualize the disappointing but unsurprising Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.

One part is Mark Evanier’s tweet. “And one day soon, someone of a different political view and/or race will do what Kyle Rittenhouse did and all the folks cheering today’s verdict will be screaming, ‘Rule of law!'”

There is a 2021 article in Slate that I found intriguing. “Black gun rights advocate Kenn Blanchard says Black Americans shouldn’t be scared of the Second Amendment.”

And of course, many African-Americans are afraid. Race DOES permeate the politics of gun control. Think of the death of Philando Castile, who announced to an officer at a traffic stop that he had a gun in his car. He ended up dead, and that continues to gut me.

I’m left to speculate what would have been the reaction by law enforcement to a young black male running through the streets of Kenosha, WI with an AR-15. Perhaps he would have ended up dead like Emantic “EJ” Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. He was a good black man with a gun trying to end an Alabama mall shooting.

But Kyle Rittenhouse, running through the chaotic streets with an automatic weapon, goes past law enforcement without incident. As a Boston Globe columnist noted: “You can be a vigilante when your mission is to serve the system.”


Much has been made of the judge’s rulings during the trial. For the most part, I concur. Yet there is one aspect that I have to agree with him. The fact that Rittenhouse had not made public comment before the trial should not have mattered. Moreover, when the prosecution suggested that this was an issue, and the judge reprimanded the state on Fifth Amendment grounds, it hurt the case. It was prosecutorial ineptness.

In this blog back in 2014, I wrote: “If I am ever in a situation that would involve the criminal justice system – whether as the victim and/or witness or defendant – I will not comment on what I might testify about until the trial is over. I won’t talk about it, and I certainly won’t blog about it.”

Very few things irritate me more while watching the news than having  Lester Holt, or whomever, saying, “X is breaking their silence.” It’s as though talking about testimony to the press before the trial is what one is SUPPOSED to do. I do not buy it.

As a practical matter, shutting up is probably better. Alec Baldwin spoke after the shooting death of the cinematographer for the movie Rust. When he talked about how well-run the set operated, he may have made himself vulnerable to civil liability.

polar bear

With God on his side

It fascinates me that the two folks on my Facebook feed who clearly supported the outcome put it in a Christian context. My old neighbor Greg says the verdict was “Absolutely beautiful totally innocent! 100% self-defense.” He bashed the “bleeding hearts”, and ends with “so good for Kyle excellent praise God.”

As someone who has been reading a lot of the Old Testament recently, there’s a lot of stories of the people of Israel preparing to invade other folks. Start with Joshua 1, for instance.

But this is not the Christian theology I believe in. I’m more of a Colossians 3:12 kind of guy. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” That would mean, in my mind, not becoming a Stand Your Ground provocateur.

“I Can Be A Christian By Myself”

“Shut the door and I’m the people.”

christian churchIn the liturgy for the first Sunday in October, the New Testament scripture was  Ephesians 4:11-16. It begins, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers.” And immediately, I thought of the song I Can Be A Christian By Myself.

There are lots of scripture that suggests that the church is comprised of parts. 1 Corinthians 12 is possibly the most famous. “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

I Can Be A Christian By Myself was a sarcastic take about this understanding. Someone told me about the song maybe 35 years ago. This led me to a search. I couldn’t find a recording on YouTube. But I did discover this article from 2010.

“[Richard] Avery and [Donald] Marsh have an ironic song called I Can Be a Christian By Myself. The first verse goes:”

I can be a Christian by myself.
Leave my dusty Bible on the shelf.
I’ll sing a hymn and pray a bit.
God can do the rest of it.
My heart’s the church, my head’s the steeple.
Shut the door and I’m the people.
I can be a Christian by myself.

Wait there’s more!

I’ll break some bread and drink some wine.
Have myself a holy time.

I’ll take the off’ring then I’ll know
Where that money’s gonna go.

So please remember, Lord, when I die,
Give me my own cloud in the sky.

After this life with its labors
Don’t bug me with needy neighbors.

I discovered the song appears in  The Richard Avery and Donald Marsh Songbook, c. 1972. But instead of waiting to get an interlibrary loan page, I ordered a used copy of the collection.

This article quotes the exact same parts of the song. It then notes, “In John 17, Jesus prays about giving his love and glory to his disciples and to the community or church. It is not a prayer for the individual Christian but for the community.”

This has informed my understanding of the communal/communion/community sense of faith, as opposed to the individual sense of salvation.

John 14:6 – I am the way, the truth, the life

Frederick Buechner

Beyond WordsAbout a dozen years ago, a blogger buddy of mine completed a quiz about the Bible, addressing several topics. One was “A teaching from the Bible that you struggle with or don’t get?”

The response: “John 14:6. Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

“I’d honestly hate to think that good people who aren’t Christians in life will be turned away by God for this reason. I have a very hard time with this notion.”

I remember this vividly because I didn’t have a particularly good answer. Moreover, reading it literally, as many Christians I grew up with would do, caused me to pretty much abandon the church for over a decade.

The narrative propelled the notion that we needed all of these missionaries. Otherwise, the Buddhists and Hindus, and Muslims were all going to burn in hell because they had not “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior.” Though I came back to church, I never found satisfactory verbiage to respond to this mindset. Until now.

The realm of mystery

In one of my small, remote groups at church, we are reading Beyond Words by Frederick Buechner, pronounced BEEK-ner. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who attended, among other places, Yale Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary. Buechner is, to the best of my knowledge, still alive at the age of 94.

Beyond Words is “A word a day to keep the demons away.” It is a 2004 compilation of three of his earlier books from the 1970s and 1980s, “tweaking some of the original entries.”

For the word “Christian,” he quotes the above scripture. Buechner added, “[Jesus] didn’t say any particular ethic, doctrine or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was.

He didn’t say it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you can ‘come to the Father.'” This is nuanced stuff. “He said it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.”

Here’s the crux of the matter. “Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.”[Emphases mine.]

Buechner’s theology would no doubt be considered blasphemy in the circles I grew up with. Oddly, I now consider their views to be the actual heresy.

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