I read an article last week that talked about the need for memorization in schools. As a teacher, I have seen the push to engage students, to let them discover facts for themselves, because a self-discovered truth is weightier than one told you by others. I think, a lot of this push toward self-discovery, self-paced and individualized learning is good. Yet, when I came home last week to see Brooke watching an Oprah show on the disgraceful state of education in America, followed a day or two later by an article in New York Magazine about the need for memorization, I see the oddly traditional manner in which Americans overreact to a situation: we all saw the weakness in having to memorize dates or capitals, how we weren’t really “learning,” and thus students should self-discover the important truths of a time period, dates be damned.
As a lover of trivia, I have already struggled with this. Just today, I was listening to a sermon by a pastor that I greatly enjoy and respect, and he said that the steam engine was invented around 1880. I muttered to myself, “Try a hundred years earlier,” with an adequate amount of arrogance and pretentiousness, and wondered how this pastor thought trains were getting around all those years before 1880. The date the steam engine was invented is largely inconsequential, until you’re actually talking about, you know, steam engines: then we do need to know dates because they are causal links in a chain. And, I have no doubt that if the steam engine were invented a hundred years later, then our lives today would be vastly different (remember, the steam engine is largely credited with making the Industrial Revolution possible in the early 19th century). No steam engine until 1880, and I’m blogging to you all by writing a letter over and over again, then sending it out via post.
But that’s neither here nor there: the fact that I didn’t need to look up any of the above information really is more about my lack of a life and fortunate genetics: it’s pretty easy for me to memorize inane trivia. And, when I come to a subject that I need to know about, memorization is absolutely necessary. Sure, you don’t really need to know what year the steam engine was invented, because you so rarely deal with that information. But, as the NYMagazine article pointed out, we must absolutely commit information to memory in order to let procedures become second nature, so that we can focus on the “structural elements of the problem.”
For myself, this means that I have far too much gray matter filled with dates about the steam engine or Battle of Hastings, far too much knowledge about song lyrics or Super Bowl winners, than I have about things of actual consequence. In college, I memorized Henry V’s entire speech at Agincourt. I memorized Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, Frost’s poem “Birches,” not to mention various paragraphs here and there in the Bible, let alone the Bible verses that I regularly crammed into my brain, from Bible studies in high school to classes in college (I went to a Christian school). This knowledge, then, was available to me at a moment’s notice. If I wanted to stir myself, to remind myself that life wasn’t meant to be comfortable, I could recite Henry V’s speech in my head. I could recite “Birches” to be amazed at the natural world, and wonder at the ability of the imagination. I could pull up the first twelve verses of 1 Peter to remind myself of God’s salvation story.
After talking with my brother last week, I am inspired to do the same. Such great giants who walked before us leaned heavily on the Psalms: the psalms were the gymnasium of the soul, the book that instructed followers of God on how to pray. Spending so much time in the book, I want some of the knowledge to become second nature. Though I can quote verses throughout the psalms (especially since a lot are, you know, set to music), I want to let whole psalms sink into me, reside in me, instruct me so that I don’t even realize their instruction.
I want to fill my brain with that which matters, which that which will move me closer to God and not distract me from God. So, this long post is to not only to declare that I’m learning that reading and studying is not always enough: if I want the Psalms to really inform me I realize I must begin to memorize some. I must let their words sink through my skin and into my marrow. May we all learn in such a way: to take what is most, most important, and to hold it so close to our hearts in the Hebrew sense of the word. For in Hebrew, the heart is the center of our intellect and our will to act, it designates the totality of our being. May we hold it that close.