By Heart

I’m sure that one day we’ll all get brain implants that will whisper in our ears all the things we want to remember. As it is, we’re stuck with unimproved gray matter.

Fortunately, memorization seems to be getting less important these days, if you believe educational progressives. Today we don’t need to actually remember anything. We have Google.

The sum of all knowledge can be found on the internet — if you know what to look for. Teaching kids how to make good searches is worthwhile; teaching them to evaluate information is even better.

A few years ago I would have replied, “Yeah, but we don’t carry the internet around with us all the time. What happens when you’re away from the computer?” That argument is dead; now we all carry phones that can Google.

Unfortunately, Google can’t think for us.

In my classroom, I’m asking when Julius Caesar was murdered. Twenty kids whip out phones and start touching tiny keyboards. The one with the quickest connection wins.

Now I’m asking, ‘What would be different if he hadn’t been murdered?’ Twenty blank looks. How do we Google that?

Rote memorization is on the educational blacklist, and has been for some time. I teach Latin, which gives me an excuse to be medieval. I would feel comfortable in the 5th century, huddling over a desk, copying manuscripts. I can make my students memorize things because “that’s the way Latin has always been taught.” Since Latin is already considered ‘dead wood’ by many educators, using obsolete methods to teach it doesn’t really annoy them.

The students who arrive in my classroom have never had to memorize anything – not even their own phone numbers. Their teachers have not wasted time and brain cells making them remember classic poetry or the multiplication table. Instead, they have taught them that opinions are better than facts.

The purpose of learning a foreign language is to communicate. In the case of Latin, we communicate with the past, reading what people thought about and believed centuries ago. Those people’s thoughts and ideas are worth knowing about because they once ruled the world. For centuries, long after Latin ceased to be spoken, all subjects were taught and written about in Latin; it was the language of educated discourse.

My Latin students can keep a dictionary at the elbow, looking up each word and inflection as they read. It is slow and tedious, but Cicero and Caesar aren’t going anywhere. They can wait for us to understand what they mean.

It would be a lot less tedious if they didn’t have to look up every word. They might enjoy it more if they had memorized a few words. They might be able to understand it instead of just decoding it. Should I admit that I make them memorize — even by rote? I will be accused of ‘drill and kill’ – medieval torture.

My modern language colleagues have the same problem. Even though we live in a global village, foreign languages are not really considered an important part of the curriculum. If we did, we would start teaching them in kindergarten instead of waiting until kids are fourteen. A five year old memorizes words almost effortlessly. Ten years of education will make him forget how to memorize. Spanish or French or Latin becomes an exercise in frustration. How do you speak a language when you don’t know any words? They may know what nouns and verbs are, but they can’t ask where the bathroom is.

Students complain because I give timed vocabulary quizzes. I tell them, “If you want to know what someone is asking you, getting the answer twenty minutes after the question doesn’t work so well.”  People may patiently wait while you use your phone to translate ‘bathroom’ into Japanese, but the conversation will never move beyond such basics. In communication, time is of the essence.

Students used to ‘learn by heart.’ They memorized things not just so they could mechanically spit information out, but so that it could become part of who they were. Thinking alone was not considered sufficient; students had to have something to think about. And why would we let students think about anything before they knew something?

Now they learn how to find things, without really knowing what’s worth finding.


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