[Milton-L] memorization

Gregory Machacek Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
Wed Feb 25 13:58:52 EST 2004

Though I sense a growing exasperation on the part of some, James Fleming's
continuing skepticism regarding memorization/recitation as an appropriate
element of a literature course continues to be useful to me as a prompt to
articulate the rationale for something I deeply believe is valuable, but
whose value I have never been called on to defend at length.

Before Captain Harper anticipated me, I was preparing to object to the
characterization of such exercizes as "busywork"; and I do object, on
precisely the grounds he articulates.   I'd like to go a stage further and
address what I understand to be Professor Fleming's real objection to the
activity, that it is too "easy."  I believe I know what he means.  When I
think about it, I guess I would agree that the process of committing poems
to memory is not especially "difficult," conceptually speaking, not as
challenging to my brain as reading Gadamer, say.   It's mostly a process of
running over the lines again and again until they stick.

Nevertheless,  I'm in complete agreement with the individuals who have
noted that *reciting* the poems effectively requires as much exercize of
one's (higher level) interpretive skills as any other form of
interpretation.  (Such exercizes used to be called "oral interpretation,"
didn't they?)  Since the kind of literary activity that Professor Fleming
has been advocating in contrast to memorization/recitation is precisely
interpretation, I would hope that his esteem for that activity might be the
grounds for his coming to appreciate at least the recitation part of
memorization/recitation exercizes.

What to do with the fact that the memorization part is not that
challenging?  I guess I'm not that concerned.  If it's valuable and just so
happens to be easy, so be it.  I'm content to have students do the
activities I believe are valuable, not only those that I believe they'll
find difficult.  A lot of them go into such exercizes at least thinking it
will be difficult, and I believe it probably is a little bit challenging,
at least insofar as it calls on them to use a cognitive ability, memory,
that not much of their education seems to tax very heavily.  However hard
or easy it might be, at least it's something relatively new that they're
doing with their minds (Incidentally, some chemists memorize the periodic

But the thing I most wanted to respond to was Professor Fleming's claim
(from two posts back) that "the business of our discipline is understanding
."  and his earlier stress on knowledge.  I feel like having a poem
memorized does represent *knowing* that poem; indeed, I regard it as the
most complete form of knowing I can achieve;  I know the poem.  To use the
analogy to music that has already come up, we regard a musician as really
knowing a piece when he or she can perform it without the sheet music.
It's true that I can also know interpretations that have been ascribed to
the poem.  But since Professor Fleming's focus is on knowlege, I don't
understand why knowing *the thing itself*--the sequence of words that make
up the poem--wouldn't constitute a valuable form of knowledge in our

Greg Machacek
Marist College

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