Intermittently, the couple would engage in conversation with the larger group, only to turn and whisper to each other and then look in the direction of my wife and me. The arrival of our food soon turned my mind from the couple.
As we were finishing our meal, the young man approached our table, introduced himself, and said he had been an American Literature student of mine years before at North Cobb High School. Hardly before getting re-acquainted, he stated that he still remembered memorizing a literary passage from Thomas Paine’s “The Crisis” and asked if he could quote the passage to me.
Such an incident had occurred once before at a noisy political gathering, so I wasn’t taken aback. I grew emotional, however, as the former student again delivered those freedom-honoring words of Thomas Paine, the Englishman who departed his native land to live in America and to champion the American Revolution. I was impressed, of course, by the former student’s ability to recall the passage (he missed only one word), and was delighted that Paine’s words, rather than those of a youth-oriented poet, were what stuck in his mind.
The incident also made me glad that for 37 years I stuck to my guns and required students to do modest amounts of memorization. Believe me, memorization was out of favor in 2003 when I left the high school scene and began teaching college English. It was very much in vogue for the first decade or so of my teaching years. By the time the crazy 1960s were leveling out, however, learning theorists were claiming that memorization was “the lowest form of learning.”
I knew that claim was poppycock and wondered if any of the theorists had ever seen or experienced its benefits or if they had ever employed it in teaching.
In a technical sense, memorization is certainly foundational and doesn’t at all rise to the level of, say, logical analysis. But neither does a “How do you do?” rise to the level of a philosophical conversation. It can certainly get one cranked up, however.
I suspect lots of plans, dreams, and good ideas have gone awry because there was no initial, essential “How do you do?” No relational skills, that is, to prompt acceptance of what one is about to propose. And lots of things have gone unlearned because there was no basis on which to learn them. Sorry, but everybody just needs to remember (memorize?) that two times two is four, that America has, or is supposed to have, three distinct branches of government, and that the human body has a heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach and liver. But these are “mere facts.” Modern education doesn’t like facts too much. It far prefers nebulous “critical thinking.”
Facts, though, can give us something to think with. Memorization is for the facts and, in the case of my former student and Thomas Paine, for the transmission of cultural information and inspiring ideas that have blessed humanity.
After about 1990, I felt subversive, certainly quaint, for requiring memory work: short poetic stanzas or easy to remember prose paragraphs. No other teachers I knew of were doing it. But no others were having a ball on Friday’s either, from watching high school students help each other, cheer each other, and then leave class, spontaneously quoting aloud, in concert, the indelible passage that was now lodged in their minds and hearts.
Here are Paine’s words, planted in the mind and heart of one student and recited 21 years later in the Marietta Diner. Ponder them and their application to our nation.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom would not be highly rated.”
I helped my former student with only one word: celestial. He helped me by reminding me that freedom is fragile, that the most marvelous computer of all is the one sitting squarely on our shoulders and that memorization isn’t too bad after all.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.