Bart Simpson writing the first line of Caedmon's Hymn on the chalkboard repeatedly

Bring Back Memorization

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

–Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales General Prologue

I love Chaucer. Despite being an Old English guy, I must admit that Chaucer is my favorite poet (I redeem myself by also stating that The Wanderer is my favorite poem), and there are a lot of reasons for that. He was witty but serious, a great storyteller, a great weaver of language, and wasn’t afraid to tell tales that had strong female characters.

This post really isn’t so much about Chaucer, however. It’s more about the way we used to teach Chaucer in high schools and my argument that it might not be a bad thing to go back to some of that model (with changes and alterations, of course). See, there was a time in this country when the majority of high school students were forced, at some point in their education, to learn the opening of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales by heart, so they could recite it on demand. Most of the time, students were allowed to learn the Modern English translation, though some teachers went for the Middle English since most of the words are recognizable. Either way, though, students had to learn how to recite Chaucer.

I’d like it if we did more of that sort of thing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. Basing an entire pedagogy on rote memorization is a recipe for disaster, and I’m not about to say that we should stop teaching things like critical thinking skills in our intro-level English classes just so we can teach a quote that they’ll be able to use once a year or so. No, there are lots of reasons to teach through memorization as well as through every other method that sprang up as a response to the method that taught only through memorization.

First and foremost, although it may certainly be onerous at the time, some of the things that we are forced to memorize as students do end up being things we remember after we’ve graduated. For instance, my friends and I, to this very day, remember the first Dialog from our German I class in junior high. All I have to do now is mention the words “Gruß dich, Monika!” and every single one of us will chime in, in unison with the rest of the lines from the piece. We’ve kept that for all these years, and even now, those of us who didn’t go on and study German any further than High School can still recall those words, priming their brains to recall other lessons from the language, even though it’s been far too many years for me to easily believe.

Of course, that sort of mental preparedness is a powerful point by itself, but there are more reasons why memorization is worthwhile. For instance, I also hold that requiring students to memorize a particular text also provides students with something they can share with others who went through the same ordeal. It’s kind of like the reason that everyone reads Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade – a common text and a common cultural touchstone make the building of a strong culture a much easier goal to achieve.

Finally, though, I think that there’s something to be said for being able to recite lines that allows students to take some pride in what they’ve accomplished. We live in a time when everyone insists that young people go to college, but no one really knows what they’re supposed to get out of it. As a result, there are a lot of negative opinions of higher ed circulating out there in the world, and those opinions can make things even harder for an industry that’s been in crisis mode since the late 80s.

In any case, give it a shot. Read and memorize some of the text above. It’s April, after all, and there are, indeed, some sweet showers happening, even here in Albuquerque. It’s a great time to memorize something that can connect you to 14th century England.

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