Saturday, October 11, 2014

Learning by Heart

“There are times when memorization is out of favor in education. Some might say that “rote memorization” is not appropriate as a teaching strategy. “Rote memorization,” however, is loaded language, biased against the discipline and effort required to learn things permanently. There is nothing wrong with challenge. We must remember that the alternative to remembering is forgetting, and when we teach something as important as grammar, that will be needed for one’s entire life, the ban on memorization makes little sense. There are areas of knowledge that should be memorized, and in the past, there was a better term for it: to learn by heart.” ~Michael Clay Thompson 


::  Q&A: Ken Burns on Why Memorizing the Gettysburg Address Matters @ Mother Jones

"[Memorization] serves a huge purpose. We're all sitting here wringing our hands at the sorry state of education. Everybody has got ideas: You've got to do STEM, and all of a sudden you've thrown the baby out with the bath water of humanities and arts and history. Nobody teaches civics anymore. People dismissed memorization 40 or 50 years ago as rote. It's not that; these kids prove it's not.

"I think the fact that we have completely tossed out memorization is a huge, huge flaw. Who knows, maybe that and civics are the glue that hold everything together? Civics is in fact politics, and politics is how things work not only in the political realm but in every other realm. It may be this simple mechanical glitch that unites everything. This is my philosophy."

I watched this documentary when it was released in April. It brought me to tears. And it solidified my desire to have my boys memorize—poetry, speeches, Bible passages, history timeline, geography, prayers in Latin—not just because I want them to have the information at their fingertips, but because I want them to enlarge their hearts, to practice doing hard things, and to engage with ideas to the point of personal ownership.

I shared this documentary preview clip at the Classical Conversations Parent Practicums at which I spoke this past summer. My almost 10 year old son attended the first one with me, and I had him recite the Gettysburg Address—into a microphone in front of a room full of adults.

[I apologize for the shaky recording. I should have dug out the tripod. Yes, this is a ten year old boy with a black eye. He’ll tell you that a stack of chairs punched him.]


This is not a parlor trick. It’s not meant to impress you. It is meant to show you that no one is excluded from any realm of human endeavor. Your children can memorize. You can memorize.

Where we fail is in thinking that memorizing is an end. Rather, it is a doorway that leads to an exciting world. It is a sense of accomplishment for kids. It empowers them. It gives them a chance to practice delivery in front of people—a huge skill. It is an introduction to big ideas. It is sophisticated vocabulary and language patterns embedded in their minds.

I’ve shared these quotes before, but they are worthy reading, again and again.

“But more than that, we would desire to bring children into the garden of created being, and thought, and expression. Caldecott reminds us that for the medieval schoolmen, as for Plato, education was essentially musical, an education in the cosmos or lovely order that surrounds us and bears us up. Thus when we teach our youngest children by means of rhymes and songs, we do so not merely because rhymes and songs are actually effective mnemonic devices. We do so because we wish to form their souls by memory: we wish to bring them up as rememberers, as persons, born, as Caldecott points out, in certain localities, among certain people, who bear a certain history, and who claim our love and loyalty.” (Anthony Esolen, author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, in the Foreword from Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott)

“One simple and immutable fact about the human brain is that you can’t get something out of it that isn’t there to start with. Supernatural inspiration notwithstanding, human beings in general—and children in particular—really can’t produce... thoughts or concepts that they haven’t first experienced and stored. In other words, we cannot think a thought we don’t have to begin with. Even the most unique, creative, and extraordinary ideas can only exist as a combination and permutation of previously learned bits of information.” ~Andrew Pudewa, 1 Myth, 2 Truths


Heather@To Sow a Seed said...

My older children have thanked me multiple times for requiring them to memorize things as varied as "Jabberwocky," conjugations, and yes, a speech or three. It's not a lost art unless we refuse to carry it forward!

Sander said...

Thanks for this. I recently gave a workshop at a homeschool convention entitled, "Train the Brain to Retain" (shamelessly borrowed from a CC Blog post). I'm going to add some of these quotes into my notes for future talks!

One Acre Follies said...

This is so good and timely for me. Thank you for this bit of encouragement and inspiration.