[Milton-L] memorization

Gregory Machacek Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
Tue Feb 24 12:30:18 EST 2004

James Fleming remains skeptical regarding the value of asking students to
memorize and recite passages of poetry as part of the discipline of
literary study.  While I still do not have the time to mount the kind of
defense of such exercizes that I would like to mount, I would like to say a
few things in response to the position he has advanced, in part because I
don't find his characterization of my position--that I "object that
scientific standards are irrelevant to literary study"--entirely accurate.

As I understand him, Professor Fleming is concerned primarily with the
level of prestige that the discipline of literary study enjoys among the
disciplines in academe.  I share his concern.  And I agree with him that "
the culture has an overwhelmingly scientific epistemology."   But I'm not
sure I entirely agree that the way for literary study to confront the
science's hegemony is to stress only those aspects of our discipline, "
foster[ing] an encounter with meaning," that such an epistemology would
supposedly regard as "occasion for knowledge."  I find that scientists
regard the process of assigning meaning to literary texts and the
techniques by which we do so, however rigorous they seem to us, no more
genuinely the kind of knowledge they value than a recited poem would be,
which still leaves us "no-place" in their eyes.

So I wonder if we oughtn't take a different approach to manifesting the
value of our discipline, not to scientists per se, but to the culture at
large.  And this approach would have a place for memorization.  If we
presented literary works as the kind of cultural productions so beautiful,
so meaningful, so valuable as to prompt some people (us) to commit them to
memory, I feel it might go further toward convincing outsiders of the value
of our field than simply stressing those elements of our discipline that
are most like the hegemonic discipline.  I know this sounds belletristic,
but it would be a kind of strategic belletrism, founded on the Girardian
principle that love for something tends to be aroused by seeing someone
else love that thing.

Now, I'm pretty sure that Professor Fleming manifests to students his love
for literature *by* the care with which he assigns it meaning.  But
memorization and recitation (with the best locution I can manage, though
I've never thought of it as a matter of locution primarily) represents for
me one way of manifesting to students the value of literary texts, and I
would want to argue for its usefulness even in the struggle against other
disciplines for institutional recognition, prestige, funding, etc.

Greg Machacek
Marist College

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