Learning by heart

What can you still recite that you learned by heart (yesterday or years ago)? Justin Snider in the HechingerEd blog makes the case for memorization that reflects my views in many ways. He writes:

Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.” But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?

Snider’s answer, along with that of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, is yes. And I agree:

Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Like Snider, I’m a particularly big fan of memorizing poems by heart, whether it’s the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or the Billy Collins “Litany” recited by a three-year-old boy in this video. But I would never call the child’s feat “rote memorization”—because (as Willingham implies) “rote” implies the lack of engagement, attention, focus. Snider is right when he observes:

Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.

In my view, memorizing poems deepens one’s sense of language so effectively that I see it as central to the work of becoming a good writer. It lodges beauty in the brain and at once in the heart, if you’ll allow me that romantic view. Do mathematicians make the same case for memorizing the first 100 digits of π? Is it, for them, a kind of play, which could even come in handy sometime (as with Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” song listing the periodic table)? Do only some things qualify as worth the trouble and other not? Is it actually about winning at Jeopardy?

Snider sets out his case for memorization. It’s a challenge that’s satisfying to meet. (He credits Broadway actors with that satisfaction, but not their Hollywood counterparts.) It’s good exercise for your brain, like crosswords, and comes in handy when you lose your smartphone. But here’s the one I agree with most:

Most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)

The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.

It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.

And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.

So I’m all for memorizing, whether in service of deep understanding or fun. (Want me to rattle off the seven capital sins and their contrary virtues, learned at six before my first communion?) But can’t people choose the things they want to memorize, as long as it’s something? Can’t we please honor the learning that engages us that way, by calling it “learning by heart”? And couldn’t we throw that regurgitative “rote” word out to rot, along with the tests that rely on it?

Please, wiser minds out there, educate me on this.


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