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In defense of memorization

I have always bristled at adults who seem to think education simply means memorizing right answers. When I was a young reporter and watched someone like Sen. Robert C. Byrd show off his rote memorization of a Cicero speech, I confess, my thoughts ran something like, "How quaint," even as I marveled at the feat.

We modern educated people know that simply remembering someone else's words in order does not signify any deeper understanding.

Fortunately for me, I had teachers and parents who believed that students should understand how they arrive at their answers. They taught us how to find answers. They taught us that new discoveries tomorrow might change what we think today. They valued getting the right answer for the right reason, but enough of the time, they also valued what could be learned from getting the wrong answer for a logical reason. To a great degree, they believed you need to memorize only what you need instantly and often -- multiplication tables, lie vs. lay, the roles of the three branches of government.

Yet, even they occasionally insisted that we memorize things -- arithmetical formulas, for sure (although later we had to master proofs before we could use properties and theorems). Once in a while, we even had to memorize passages of literature. I groaned. What was the point? But I complied:

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled. Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard 'round the world."

I did it, but I didn't respect it. Memorizing passages was a tiresome inconvenience, a relic of 19th-century education, back there with one-room schoolhouses, slates and sewing samplers. It was probably something teachers made us do because they had to do it when they were young. (They must have been 40 if they were a day.)

But at some point, I changed. I have grown a respect, even a fondness, for the discipline of memorization.

It happened so gradually I can scarcely say when, but I think a significant shift must have occurred many years ago during a "Read to Me Day" at Sharon Dawes Elementary School. Then-librarian Elaine Anderson recruited volunteers to rotate through the grades all day, reading books to students.

At the end of reading to some fifth-graders, we had only a couple minutes, not enough time to start another book, but just enough time to ask students what they were studying.

Sullen students informed me, with scornful glances toward the man standing at the back of the room, that their social studies teacher was making them memorize the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. They were appalled. I was pleasantly surprised.

"You mean like this?" I asked, and launched.

Now, it had been years. Even as I opened my mouth to recite, I was not absolutely sure the words would be there, but then they suddenly were: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate but equal station to which the laws of Nature and Nature's god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The kids were agape, and then pleased. Their teacher grinned. If we had been cartoon characters, little hearts would have bubbled from somewhere in the neighborhood of his shirt pocket. He looked at me with such gratitude, but really the thanks go to Dixie Fultineer, my 11th-grade English teacher, who forced me to do things that young Dawn was too immature to value.

I made over the kids for having such a great teacher that they had to do in fifth grade what I had to do in the 11th. They sat up a little straighter. It was a fun day. Those kids are probably college-age now.

All these years later, it turns out I am thankful for those gems tucked into my memory, seemingly forgotten. They pop to the surface of thought at opportune moments.

Sometimes, they bring perspective, like Emerson's shot heard 'round the world. It drips with nostalgia from each perfect stanza, now that I am old enough to have experienced nostalgia.

I suspect texts grow richer for having traveled with us over the years, aged and matured, like wine in a cask or seeds in the ground.

It turns out memorizing a few passages of dull text for a test all those years ago was not the end goal after all, but just a beginning step. The old words are there when a mind grows to want them, whether to search the founding documents of one's nation, or simply to share the experience of watching someone's woods fill up with snow.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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