Owning Our Texts
I’ve always been envious of my father who can recite by heart the Preamble of the United States Constitution (“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility….”), much of the Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….”), and a handful of other formative texts of American history. Thanks to his 5th-grade history teacher, my 90-year-old father can still recite them. Similarly, my 86-year-old mother can recite her Hebrew school graduation speech which she delivered in June of 1948 roughly a month after the founding of the State of Israel. To this day, she can still deliver the speech in the original Yiddish culminating emotionally with the original Hebrew from Psalm 137, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem….”
In an era where knowledge nihilists believe you don’t need to memorize anything because we have Google, learning texts by heart is a lost art. People speak pejoratively of it as rote memorization. However, looking back on my education, I regret that no teacher required me to memorize foundational texts–not parts of Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) or the first two sentences of the US Declaration of Independence (“When in the Course of human events….We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) or verses from the Book of Psalms which my parents can still quote verbatim to this very day.
Without disparaging the importance of critical thinking and disciplinary thinking, I see the value of learning texts by heart. When you memorize a text, you have the ability to reflect more deeply on it. You understand it better as time goes on. You expand your vocabulary, enlarge your cultural literacy, build your confidence, and strengthen your brain synapses. You begin to see references to the text in literature, movies, art that you never would have noticed otherwise. Plus, in an age when we suffer from “tribal epistemology,” where information is evaluated based not on conformity to some accepted truth or common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is endorsed by tribal leaders, it’s good to have some common, shared cultural texts that can unify us.
I once took a group of 8th graders to visit the ancient city of Beit Shearim in Israel, which, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi and Bavli, is the burial place of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the editor of the Mishnah. With no text in front of them, the students began to sing aloud a mishna that they had learned in the spirit of the tannaim who were honored at this site. They were products of a community Jewish day school that used Rabbi Pinchas Haymen’s Mishna and Talmud curriculum which teaches students to sing mishnayot. These students owned that text. It wasn’t something external. It was theirs. They truly became text people.
Professor Molly Worthen, a scholar of intellectual history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, speaks to the importance of memorizing poetry which could well apply to Tanach, Rabbinics, Jewish History, and Ivrit courses alike. Below is a summary from the Marshall Memo of the original opinion piece that appeared in the August 26, 2017 edition of the New York Times.
In this New York Times article, Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill), says that before the invention of writing, “the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it.” Then, as scrolls and folios provided a way to externally encode some of the content of humans’ brains, “court poets, priests, and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.” In early U.S. schools, poetry recitation was “an inexpensive exercise that helped even inexperienced teachers at underfunded schools impart rhetorical skills and nurture moral character.”
After the Civil War, as public schools proliferated, textbooks contained anthologies of verse, and memorizing poetry became a fixture at the elementary and secondary levels. A 1902 handbook for teachers said that reciting poetry stocked children’s minds “with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings that have been uttered by the race.” Poems were chosen to model Victorian virtues – piety, noble sacrifice, and valiant acceptance of mortality – as in poems like Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” But in the 1920s, educators began to question the relevance of memorizing poetry to students’ lives. It was gradually replaced by activities involving self-expression, and by the 1960s had almost disappeared from schools (except in some world language classes). Now, says Worthen, memorizing poetry “has become deeply unfashionable, an outmoded practice that many teachers and parents – not to mention students – consider too boring, mindless, and just plain difficult for the modern classroom. Besides, who needs to memorize when our smartphones can instantly call up nearly any published poem in the universe?”
Worthen is not persuaded. “The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act,” she says, and it’s more important than ever: “All of us struggle with shrinking attention spans and a public sphere that is becoming a literary wasteland, bereft of sophisticated language or expressions of empathy beyond one’s own Facebook bubble. For students, who seem to have less and less patience for long reading assignments, perhaps now is the time to bring back poetry memorization. Let’s capitalize on their ear for the phony free verse of Twitter and texting and give them better words to make sense of themselves and their world.”
Worthen admits that she is impatient with poetry: “I prefer straightforward prose that tells me what it means.” But she’s started spending ten minutes a day memorizing carefully chosen poems – a Shakespeare sonnet, some Longfellow, some Gerard Manley Hopkins. She’s finding that the close reading and hard work involved in learning a poem by heart gets her in touch with the meaning and the artistry of each poem. “Every time I bumbled through a stanza, I ruminated on each word a little more,” she says. “I played with tone and emphasis… It’s time for us to show we care about words again, to rebuild our connection to a human civilization so much broader than our Twitter feeds.”