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July 3rd, 2022

Insight

The blessing of 'rote' memory

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published April 21, 2022

The blessing of 'rote' memory
Here's a hypothesis: Perhaps one factor in Volodymyr Zelensky's skill as a wartime political leader is his training as an actor, which developed his ability to rally followers, evoke empathy, and convincingly express the justice of the cause for which Ukraine is fighting.

Arguably, the many years Zelensky spent memorizing scripts and honing the ability to deliver lines effectively are now contributing to his effectiveness as Ukraine's president. In a similar vein, historians have argued that Ronald Reagan's experience in Hollywood prepared him to become the "Great Communicator" who later proved so successful as president of the United States.

Winston Churchill wasn't a professional actor. But he too committed prodigious amounts of material to memory — not only entire speeches to be delivered in Parliament, but also vast swaths of Shakespeare's plays. More than one observer has suggested that the rhetoric in Churchill's wartime speeches echoes the inspiriting patriotism — "We few, we band of brothers" — of the message delivered by Shakespeare's Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt.

I don't want to overstate the point. It does seem plausible to me that practice at memorizing texts and reciting them by heart would be an asset for anyone with political aspirations. But memorization is a wonderful and valuable activity regardless of any political benefits.

There was a time when memorization was a standard feature of American schooling. In 1927, New York City's board of education directed grade school teachers to teach poetry to pupils, with particular emphasis on the use of rhythm, diction, and imagery. Children were to memorize at least some of the poems they studied. Among the material recommended by the board "for reading and memorization" in the first, second, and third grades were works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Alfred Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. By the time they were in seventh and eighth grades, students were memorizing chunks of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare, along with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Needless to say, it isn't only literature that can be memorized. The elements of the periodic table, the names and locations of the 50 states, the 46 US presidents, the first 100 digits of pi, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, all the best picture Oscar winners — the list is literally endless. When I was 11 or 12, I took it into my head to memorize the names of every sitting US senator and governor. Some of my sports-minded friends knew the starting lineup of each American League baseball team. When my twin niece and nephew were toddlers, my brother taught them the names of the 15 former Soviet republics and their capitals. He would say "Kyrgyzstan" and, from their high chairs, they would call out "Bishkek."

Everyone memorizes some things — the multiplication tables, their Social Security number, song lyrics, the Wi-Fi password, family members' birthdays — but memorization for its own sake has long since gone out of favor. Writing in The American Scholar more than 40 years ago, the late Clara Claiborne Park, a professor of English at Williams College, commented on the disdain with which professional educators dismissed learning material by heart as mere "rote memory." She quoted one college president who sneeringly called memorization "the lowest form of human intellectual activity."

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But there is nothing "low" about mastering a block of information so effectively that you can surface it at will. Who has ever regretted being able to recite Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional" from memory? Or readily identify a bird from its songs? Or name the planets of the Solar System? You don't have to be a "Jeopardy!" contestant to relish having instant recall of thick slices of knowledge. Memorization takes work, but there is joy in the accumulation of knowledge that requires no googling.

The more information for which you develop "muscle memory," the more tools you have for thinking and reasoning — the more connections you can perceive in the world, the more insights you can draw, the more moments of intellectual serendipity you may experience. In that sense, memorized information is mental circuitry that provides a path for imagination and understanding to flow. Granted, memorizing "mere" facts and figures is not the same as learning to think. But it does stock one's mind, as Park put it, with something "to think about, to think with, a range of language to think and speakin."

Our brain's capacity for memory is immense. We really should be putting it to better use.

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