Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Memory in the Classroom

In this age when artificial memory has become so important, it is common to find students bringing their laptops to class to take notes.  In fact, when they are told not to do so, as Dan Rockmore did, it tends to make news. Of course, he wrote about it, and the responses to his piece on Andrew Sullivan's bog the Dish today caught my attention.

A few years ago, in one of my senior literature classes, most of the students had their laptops and seem to make good use of them. But I had mixed feelings about this intrusive technology.  A few were apparently sending messages to friends or surfing the Net or doing something other than listening.

And listening well is often a problem, not only in school. That prompts some respondents to Rockmore's piece to sing the praises of old-fashioned memory.

One of these says his or her literature professor forbade even note taking. "He wanted us to use our memories and so we had to become good listeners."  As a result, forty years later, he can still recite passages from Chaucer, Milton and other poets to impress his friends.

Yet the purpose of memory work, often neglected in today's schools, is not to impress others but to allow something like poetry to remain part of us, its cadence and imagery stored of the vast collective bank we draw upon as we move on. This is especially valuable for those who write.

I can remember my Latin and Shakespeare passages from many years ago, and being an English professor and writer, I am grateful that they have stuck in my brain. I am grateful for the Jesuits who insisted on these unpopular assignments. But they did not forbid note-taking.

That seems to be an extreme reaction to the conflict between memorizing and note-taking that goes back many centuries.  In the larger oral culture of the medieval university, where written texts were scarce, lectures were delivered rapidly so that the students could take them in "but the hand could not," according to one of Sullivan's respondents.

As my work on Matteo Ricci (d. 1610), the Jesuit who amazed the Chinese with his memory skills, indicates, education in earlier times and in cultures other than that of the West has long relied on memorizing vast amounts of material. This is a skill we have lost.

Ricci could recall long passages of material he had learned as a young man in Rome and was able to translate these into Chinese, which he mastered because of his training in the art of memory.

Shakepeare and other writers of his era, while relying on source books for their plays, could easily recall lines and passages from Ovid or Virgil that they had been required to know by heart.  Poetry is essentially an oral medium, even now, and the sound of language is something writers of prose often forget about when they revise their work.

Knowing things "by heart" has a lot to recommend it, even at the time when artificial memory dominates most of our communications media. Don't  both kinds of memory have a place in the classroom?

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