Four score and seven reasons memorization is important

by Amy Henry

Posted on Friday, October 17, 2014, at 5:09 pm

In the past couple of decades, memorization, aka “rote learning,” has become as unpopular an educational method as the use of the paddle. Rote learning conjures up images of strict schoolmarms smacking students’ hands for neglecting to learn their times tables or the Gettysburg Address, and that anecdotal picture has obscured the many benefits of memorization.

It’s sad, because the only things I recall from school are the things I memorized: times tables, algebra’s FOIL, Bible verses, chapel songs, poems like “Little Orphant Annie”how to draw the Mediterranean area by hand, and my orchestra teacher Mr. Wallace’s famous music theory chants (“And an F sharp, C sharp, G sharp, D sharp, A sharp, E sharp, B sharp, rest!”).

The rest, for the most part, is gone. It is the things I’ve memorized that have sunk down deep into the fiber of my being and made me who I am. Those and the quotes, poetry, and passages I’ve memorized as an adult inform my thinking, writing, and living more than anything else.

You never know when you will have access to only those things locked in your memory. I once read When Hell Was in Session by Jeremiah Denton, an Air Force pilot imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He spent years in solitary confinement and kept his sanity during that time in part by pulling from memory and revisiting the prayers, hymns, stories, and liturgies of his childhood. 

I hate to imagine how today’s child would survive a similar situation. What poems, Scripture, songs, liturgies do we press into their hearts? What besides Pinterest memes, sarcastic comebacks, abbreviated text lingo, and the lyrics to “Super Bass” would our kids have to comfort themselves with should they ever need to? What words and songs are in their hearts, informing the very fibers of who they are becoming?

Three nights ago, I was putting 10-year-old son to bed and found myself too overwhelmed by the Sisyphean workload facing my return upstairs to conjure up a prayer. For the first time in my parenting life I mumbled, hopefully, “Say your prayers,” as if I’d taught him any.

And, in one long breath, he did:

“We thank Thee, O Creator, that thou hast vouchsafed us thy grace to attend instruction. Bless those in authority over us, our parents and instructors who are leading us to an awareness of good, and grant us power and strength to continue this study. We praise thee, O God of our fathers, we hymn thee, we bless thee, we give thanks to thee for thy great and tender mercy. To thee do we flee, O merciful and mighty God. Shine into our hearts the true Sun of thy righteousness. Enlighten our minds and keep all our senses that henceforth we may walk uprightly and keep thy commandments and may finally attain unto thee eternal life, even to thee who are the source of light, and be admitted to the glorious fruition of thy inaccessible light for thou art the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Does he understand all that? No, of course not. But I am infinitely happy such things are in there, deep in his heart, informing who he is and who he is becoming.

To those who believe memorization is cruel, outdated, mindless, and useless, I rest my case.

Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.

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