The Power of the Memorized Line

May 18th, 2015

Sarah Cooper is back this week with this thoughtful post about the importance and power of memorizing lines — from history, from poetry, from speeches. She argues that having a thorough knowledge of a subject helps students dive further into analysis and understanding and that these memorized lines can become companions for life.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionThe Power of the Memorized Line
By Sarah Cooper

My mother, an English teacher, was master of the literary one-liner.

“There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons,” she’d muse while visiting Boston in December, the sun setting just after 4:00 p.m. Emily Dickinson’s poetry became a way for my mom, a longtime Californian, to manage the gloom.

Well into my adulthood, whenever I said anything remotely snide, my mom would whip out King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.” Sometimes she meant it more than others.

And, faced with any situation in which despair threatened to overwhelm hope, she would quote William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” I’ve pulled out that one myself when discussing historical catastrophes with students.

At their worst, such displays of erudition can remind us of Monica in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, who “knows one line from every poet.” At any remotely apropos conversational moment, Monica inserts an allusion to make herself look smart.

At their best, however, the right quotations, plucked from long ago—in the middle of a classroom or the middle of the night—can ignite memory and make us feel we’re not alone.

Memorization might seem old-fashioned, a straggler behind the excitement of inquiry learning and design thinking. Yet mastering a substantial body of knowledge can lead to playful analysis.

“The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem,” assert the authors of the recent book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which applies cognitive science research to memory techniques.

When I taught English, my students often memorized a poem as part of a larger poetry project. Now that I teach U.S. history, each year I choose a couple of quotations that students must memorize verbatim, keeping in mind poet Robert Pinsky’s observation that “a people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory.”

Last semester, the eighth graders memorized the opening to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ideally these tenets will echo in their ears any time they see rights being taken away.

Next year, I hope to ask students to internalize a more subversive section of the same paragraph, which declares that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” We live in inertia until something propels us otherwise, an idea I would like them to seize upon as they become adult citizens.

This semester, students are memorizing the final sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Why this particular sentence, laden with prepositional phrases?

The students told me a bit of “why” themselves after they circled resonant language in class: charity, strive, bind, cherish, just and lasting peace. These words aspire to create community in the face of deep conflict.

Lincoln’s grand ending also invites us into a national discussion of peace and war that has persisted for 150 years.

President Gerald Ford held Lincoln’s speech in mind when he said in April 1975 that “the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.” Ford hoped that an appeal to Lincoln’s graciousness would help heal the rancor of Vietnam.

So too did Barack Obama hail toward Lincoln in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, when he spoke of “three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.” Echoing the words of others does not simply show a familiarity with history but also gives strength to persevere through difficult work.

As with Lincoln’s speeches, the best documents of American history contain a great deal of poetry. Memorizing such rich language gives us what poet Billy Collins calls “the pleasure of companionship” from something we have set to heart. “When you internalize a poem,” Collins says, “it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion.”

My mother’s quotations—Faulkner, Shakespeare, Dickinson, all—have walked around with me for a lifetime.

Similarly, I think all of us hope that the documents, speeches, and novels we teach might in some way become “companions” for our students in future years—when they feel beleaguered, when they feel emboldened, or when they simply need to remember that someone else has faced their struggles before.

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