Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What Reading Plato Taught Me About Memory Work

As classical homeschoolers, memory work has long been a mainstay in our day. Over the years we have memorized long lists of dynasties, monarchs, and art periods. Poems, speeches, and soliloquies have all found parking spaces in our brain matter. Along the path to memorization we have embraced many methods to ingrain the words into our very subconscious. We have used acrostics, memory palaces, and sheer dogged determination. In third grade, our middle daughter could sing you all the presidents of the United States.

It quite wowed the grandparents when Reagan could lyrically render all the presidents into a phrase of historical and musical genius, but aside from bragging rights, was there really a point? Did such exercises do anything really useful to further her education in the areas that are most important?

Those who are proponents of memory work will give as their reason that habitual memorization results in proven cognitive development. I am coming to realize that while I do not dispute the brain building effects of memorization, I question the things we have our children memorize. What is the point of memorizing long lists of rulers, countries on a continent, or tall mountains? We live in a world where those facts can be accessed in seconds on devices that we have at our fingertips.

The argument against memorizing long list of things that can be easily looked up is likely an easy one to support in our modern age, but I know that those who value poetry will dispute my suggestion that it be devalued as memory work. Yes, poetry is an essential element in our classrooms; I do not dispute that fact. Poetry distills what it is to be human into succinct phrases that speak to the everyman in each of us and renders things from alluring to repulsive into words that resonate. So too, can the same argument be made for great speeches and soliloquies. They are memorable because they toll the bells in our own spirits, awaken our own dreams, ambitions, and highest ideals.

How on Earth can any educator argue against the worth of such memory work?

My argument is this: when students are forced to memorize complete poems, complete speeches, and complete soliloquies, the truly profound is lost among the sheer volume of words. How many times have your children finished rattling off the Gettysburg Address only to look blankly at you when you ask them why the speech is so profound? If they don’t get that lines such as the one declaring “a new birth of freedom” and the idea that it is pivotal that a government be “of,” “for,” and “by” the people in order to ensure that it “shall not perish from the earth,” they have missed the whole point. And more importantly, they do not need to memorize the entire thing (okay, it is not that long, but you get my point) to focus on the meat of what Abraham Lincoln was trying to say. Lincoln, I am quite sure, would not care that scores of American children can recite his speech, which he wrote on the fly and delivered in less than two minutes. He would want them to be able to expound upon the central truths of which he spoke.

So, you might argue, what is the harm in memorizing the whole thing as long as they do get the central themes? If your homeschool is anything like mine, there are never enough hours in the day, week, or year to cover everything. How many mind and soul expanding ideas are relegated to the “didn’t quite get to that” pile that is on your desk as you wrap up your school year?

With this fact in mind, I have decided to restructure our memory time. Whenever I decide to take a second look at anything that we do in our homeschool, I always ask myself whether the change I am contemplating will bring that content area closer in alignment with my one main desire for my children’s education. The number one goal I have in educating my children is teaching them to question everything in order to more thoroughly understand the “why” behind everything they learn and everything they believe. Why did people fight the wars they fight? Why do certain scientific theories hold water? Why do we continue to read some books centuries after they are written? Why do we embrace our faith and our belief in a Heavenly Father? If people understand the “why” they have all the tools they will ever need to effectively structure an essay, confidently carry on a conversation, and convincingly defend their faith.

The question, for me, has become how to take memory time, which I do believe is very important—not only for cognitive development but for educational value—and bring it in alignment with my greatest goal for my children. The answer came to me quite organically (my favorite way to have a “eureka!” moment) as my boys and I read Plato’s “Apology” today. Several times as we read, we paused to discuss the “soul” of what we were reading. Why (that word again!) were certain ideas so riveting, even to two fifteen year old boys reading them nearly twenty-five centuries after they were first recorded? In reading Plato’s version of the thoughts of Socrates (who wasn’t one for recording his own teachings), the boys marveled that from this master rhetorician, pagan though he was, they could learn one of the most logical defenses for why death need not be feared, a defense that supports their faith-based ideals and yet would not be scoffed at by even the most virulent of atheists:

“…if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. (Benjamin Jowett, trans.)” 

As I showered, I pondered this morning’s reading and discussion with the boys—Archimedes had his “eureka!” moments in the bathtub; a modern girl, mine always seem to come to me in the shower. This was not an exception. It became clear to me that this was the answer to my memory work question. Instead of filling their heads with a jumble of words—some admittedly very pretty—with nuggets of thought provoking ideas (perhaps) buried in the deluge, these experiences would give shape to a new method of choosing the things we memorize.

Take the above quote as an example. In the average course of a homeschool day, that quote would be remarked upon, discussed, perhaps underlined in the book or transferred to a journal. The student would then move on. If however we take the time to memorize it, the student is left with a thought-provoking quote that can be remembered in the course of conversations later in life, sparking discussions about attitudes toward death and what comes after. Perhaps that discussion occurs at the deathbed of one afraid to die but unsure of the answers faith alone can give. There is also a whole other argument, one explored as a major theme in “Apology,” that of what is true wisdom and who is truly wise. This could provide yet another stimulating topic of discussion, as the nudge from the quote would no doubt bring to mind the arguments used to plead the case of Socrates but relevant still in any discussion on the topic of wisdom.

Our path now seems so clear. Instead of spending endless hours memorizing the “old standards,” we will instead memorize the “great ideas.” That is not to say that many of our memorized passages won’t come from the poems, speeches, and soliloquies that others memorize. I believe very strongly in the important place all of those have in a complete education. Indeed, we are a whole book homeschool, and the sheer beauty of words has a prominent place in our lives, valued especially for the effect that reading them has on our writing. Our change in memory focus only means that we will zero in on the main ideas that “speak” and leave the rest in favor of more profound fare from other places. Sadly, great thought-provoking quotes, such as the one above from Plato, never make it into our children’s long-term memory banks because the time that could be spent on memorizing them is given over instead to such flashier pursuits as being able to recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner from start to finish.

1 comment:

  1. A very profound essay Care which prompts me to think how memory serves us as we age. So many phrases, story lines, and experiences get filed in our brain bank and then the tickler system begins to fail, recall falters, details recolored, names lost. But, the concept, the grain of truth remains, hopefully enhanced by greater awareness. TY