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Memorize This

What have you permanently filed in your brain — and do you wish there were more?

If you enjoyed the drama of young people on stage under pressure, if it’s been a while since you heard a heartfelt rendition of “Pied Beauty,” or if you’re simply in the Salem area and you don’t have any other plans for this Saturday afternoon, you might consider heading to the Poetry Out Loud 2008 State Finals.

This is the third-annual incarnation of a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. It involves the “memorization and recitation of classic and contemporary poetry” and culminates in a national contest in April, but it’s the memorization itself that has gotten us thinking.

Large-scale memorization in schools seems to have gone the way of the mimeograph machine or the dunce cap. There are those who celebrate its passing, arguing that creativity and critical thinking can’t thrive in a culture of rote learning. And there are those who long — even just a bit — for a now-lapsed golden age, one in which students everywhere could recite poems, give the Gettysburg Address, and rattle off times tables until they ran out of oxygen. (That’s the way it was, right?)

If Poetry Out Loud represents a tiny backswing of the anti-memorization pendulum, it also provides a nice excuse to talk about what exactly we lose — and what we gain — when we store fewer facts and figures and quatrains in our heads. Have we become more creative problem solvers? Better users of search engines and libraries? Are we poorer for not having specific literary or historical storehouse in our brains — a personal library of synaptic connections that no internet can rival?

Do you remember your parents’ phone numbers, or have you outsourced that memory to your cell phone? Has Google supplanted your memory? What have you permanently filed in your brain — and do you wish there were more?


Photo credit: Gaetan Lee / Flickr / Creative Commons

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