Friday, February 20, 2009

More on the "Canon": Words by Heart

Do students have to learn anything by heart any more?

Memorization is often spoken of with a hint of disdain.  In the hierarchy of learning, Bloom's Taxonomy, that includes comprehension, application, analysis, and synthesis, memorization for knowledge lies at the bottom. It's supposedly a "low" form of learning - does one really need to think if one memorizes? Perhaps this is why today, much to our horror as parents, our kids have not been asked to learn their times tables or parts of speech as we did when we were even younger than they.  After all, we can't have thoughtless automatons growing up through the American school system, now, can we?

This concept of memorization belies its educational utility and importance and fails to acknowledge how fundamentally we need memorized knowledge as part of a base on which to build all those other process - application, analysis, synthesis.  

Why does some memorized knowledge stay with us for life, and some evaporate as soon as the test is over?  I still remember clearly the Montessori symbols for the parts of speech - and yes, they did help me learn the parts of speech.  And because Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Sand, I am able to help my daughter get through her biology chapter on the classification of organisms.  But if you were to ask me to recite some geometric theorems, I wouldn't be able to.  And the Krebs Cycle?  I'm afraid that would be incomplete without a review.  

I think there's a distinction, too - in my own mind, at least - between memorizing facts and learning by heart.  This morning when my cousin in the Philippines read a message from me complaining about the loud rattling of the window in the call room last night, and she sent me a reply that asked, "Who has seen the wind?"  I was able to send her another message with words learned by heart decades ago:  

"Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by."

I haven't thought about that poem by Christina Rossetti in ages, but it was still with me, intact - learned by heart.  I didn't even know that I knew it.

I started thinking of other poems that I know by heart.  There aren't that many, sadly - my parents and the folks from their generation have many more under their belt.  I have Langston Hughes' Dreams.  John Donne's The Good Morrow.  A Shakespeare sonnet.  Barter by Sara Teasdale.  The Tyger by William Blake.  Some of these I learned through school, and some because my parents made literature a living part of my childhood.  My mother read me T.S. Eliot.  My father recited verses off the cuff by Carroll, Swinburne, Shelley, Herbert; quoted The Highwayman to me on moonlit nights, when "the moon was ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas;" and bade me hear, with Tennyson, "O, sweet and far, from cliff and scar, the horns of Elfland faintly blowing."  I am so deeply grateful to them for instilling in me this love of the word.

There's something almost liturgical in the way words learned by heart can be kept alive, like psalms, among us.  It's a connection, through language, to great ancient thoughts.  My most precious memory of words learned by heart is from the day I walked with some women in my husband's family to his grandfather's grave outside a tiny medieval church in a village in Normandy.  There, his grandmother began to recite the Miserere in French (Psalm 51) - words she knew without having to try to remember, and uttered with total self-giving and reverence; beautiful words that had become part of her, and through her, part of us - a poem-prayer living and breathing in our midst.  This was not mere memorization; this was knowledge carried through life in the deepest portion of a person's spirit, rooted there like a living tree always ready to bear fruit.

I complained a lot about memorization during med school.  I did speak of it with contempt and criticize the lack of respect for creativity - "synthesis" - in physicians' training. But there is memorization that is not at all "low" by comparison as a form of learning, and it should be encouraged, embraced, and appreciated.  We should learn more things by heart.


Resident Anesthesiologist Guy (RAG) said...

Kreb's cycle: Can I Keep Selling Sex For Money Ok?

Carpal bones medial to lateral and proximal to distal: Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can't Handle

Thiazide duiretic common side effects: hyperGLUC

And so forth. Without memorization there's a lot that will be forgotten even more - and we already know that our schools are failing kids more every year.

T. said...

Well, no WONDER I no longer know the Krebs past isocitrate! I never learned that mnemonic...nor do I think I'd have been able to use it if I had! :)

But scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum, pisiform...that's all still there, wow. I can still hear my anatomy lab partners' voices reciting the carpals with and around me (and one of them reminding us, "The trapezi-UM is on the THUMB!"). Thanks for reminding me of that blast from the past - the halcyon days.

Patty said...

I've never thought about the term "by heart" until reading you post. I'm sure you have ... I'm just slow this way. But "by heart" is something more than "by brain" or some such thing (Sorry I'm not a very good and clear writer!).

I sometimes tell a student, "I want you to bleed [scales]" (You can insert different words, depending upon what I'm pushing them to get into their blood, if you know what I mean!).

Anyhoo ... silly ramble ... just had to comment on the heart/brain thing.

Michael Leddy said...

I pay my students to memorize: 20 lines = an added 100 for quizzes.

There's a story about the Milton scholar Douglas Bush remarking that the walk from his house to Harvard was "'Lycidas' twice." I.e., he was running through the poem in his head.

Bardiac said...

If you think about the etymology of words like "remember" (Spanish: "recordar"), they're way cool.

Elaine Fine said...

. . . and I always thought of "Who Has Seen the Wind" as the words to a song I sang in Junior High School chorus. Musical settings often help us to gain a deeper (and an interpretive) understanding of poems, and they help us to remember them.

T. said...

Patty, I like that - "by heart" versus "by brain," the latter being what I did in med school, for the most part.

Michael - I love that you encourage your students to learn passages by heart, and I love the tidbit about Lycidas. I'll have to try that on my next walk!

Bardiac - that's exactly why I am completely against the idea of spelling words the way they sound to people; a word's history/heritage can often be found in its structure.

Elaine - I so agree; music can help etch words into one's mind/heart, or bring out a work's meaning in unique ways.