Monday, April 12, 2010

Thinking about Memory

Well, Philebus says that the good for all animate beings consists in enjoyment, pleasure, delight, and whatever can be classed as consonant therewith: whereas our contention is that the good is not that, but that thought, intelligence, memory, and all things akin to these, right opinion and true reasoning, prove better and more valuable than pleasure for all such beings as can participate in them; . . . and that nothing in the world is more profitable than so to participate.

I've been thinking about "memory" and its role in education as I work on my highschooler's lesson plans for next year. This year, the assignments he hated most were the ones where he had to think or imagine in the service of the work that was done. I know that most 13 year old boys hate making their brains work in the service of their studies. But is there some validity to his particular form of loathing? He liked the memory work, the multiple choice or comprehension quizzes, and he liked writing stories. He was OK about conversations with me -- discussions of the study questions related to his studies. I think he would think that Bloom did middle school students a disservice with his Taxonomy. From casting back to my own younger days or even to this morning, I have some sympathy. Most "schooly" exercises feel a bit too much like being in the power of Procrustes. They try to draw out something one is not conscious of actually having -- in fact, something that one strongly feels one does not have.

On the other hand, memorizing just takes work.

And writing, though difficult, is genuinely a human enterprise. I'm starting to think that IEW is correct to focus on style rather than projects like making newspapers of a given historical time, etc. Maybe newspaper projects and the like were originally meant to be fun, relevant and practical, but in effect, they don't really form the young human being. Style, the way it was traditionally taught, is based on imitation, which comes easier to young people than trying to create something out of scratch. It's like following a recipe.

The best occasion to create something out of scratch is when you WANT to. I let Kieron write fictional versions of some of the assignments he gets from his charter school. This is because this is how I learned to write and love writing, and this is how my older children learned to write effectively, too. Writing fiction can teach you pretty much all you need to know about style, structure and coherence. And unlike newspaper projects, it is something that comes naturally to almost all readers of literature.

Back to memory -- what I really wanted to say was that I was pondering memory in terms of Beauty, Truth and Goodness -- or, to say it in a somewhat similar way, in terms of art/senses, knowledge and morality. Or as St Augustine says it here -- there is a triad of goals that apply to what is said by the eloquent, and perhaps there is a similar triad when we are talking about what is stored in the memory.

“It has been said by a man of eloquence, and quite rightly, that the eloquent should speak in such a way as to instruct, delight, and move their listeners.” St Augustine


One kind of memory is that based on observation of art or nature, or the hearing of beautiful words or music (I'm leaving aside the other senses right now because they are less intellectual and less intrinsically connected to the substance of the remembered thing, though smell is very evocative to memory).

Charlotte Mason used to have her students take a mental picture of a landscape and said that a few of these were a wonderful solace and refuge for the memory. Many of her other exercises to do with nature were directed towards attentive observation and remembering. Same with the visual arts, and with music.

Memorizing beautiful words, similarly, focuses the memory on beauty and power and wisdom of expression.


Another kind of memory is oriented towards "knowledge". Nowadays we think of memorizing facts but traditionally, mere contingent facts were considered less important than humanistic knowledge -- knowledge to do with the art of reasoning, of expression, of the "sciences" of math and philosophy and theology. But sure, there are some "mere facts" that are valuable to know as hinges for further knowledge. ED Hirsch talks a lot about that in his works on Cultural Literacy and I find that some "fact knowledge", especially if it is "humane" (associated with things of interest to humans, like literature and nature), leads to sympathy and further interest and involvement with those things, and indeed deeper comprehension.

Another way to put the different between higher and lower knowledge is that higher knowledge is necessarily true.... true by nature of how things are. There's a continuum that goes all the way down to more trivial truth -- one wouldn't see a valid reason to know what time one's distant acquaintance goes to bed at night. It makes sense to focus on the kind of knowledge that will be important no matter what, though most people also have a collection of knowledge that happens to be interesting to them for their own reasons, and this has humane value IMO (Aidan knows different models of cars and my very brilliant father used to memorize baseball statistics as a young boy).


The final kind of memory seems to me to be somewhat similar to what Charlotte Mason calls "training in habits". Maybe you could call it a kind of "muscle memory". It might even involve athletic or other physical training like dancing or riding or playing a musical instrument. But it would also include all the things one does without effort of decision. It might even reach to higher habits of morality -- like finding peaceful solutions to conflicts, or honesty, or sincerity of expression.

Of course these areas overlap. For example, reading stories of virtue and heroism can inspire one to behave more nobly. A beautiful landscape can actually have a similar effect. The astronaut James Irwin gave a talk at my church saying that he converted to Christianity when he looked back at the radiant sphere of our Earth from the moon.

I was thinking that it's not important to thoroughly comprehend beautiful things one stores in the memory -- in fact, it's probably not possible to really "comprehend" beauty as if you were bigger than it is. Beauty requires approach not incorporation. As Dorothy Sayers says, children can fall in love with the rolling syllables of a wonderful poem without understanding its content. Aidan has memorized all the prayers of the Rosary in Latin without an effort just by hearing them.

It seems more important, to me, to have some understanding before one memorizes "knowledge". Perhaps I'm wrong, but Richard Feynman talks about "Fragile Knowledge" and I think he means memory without understanding. For one thing, it doesn't tend to get retrieved appropriately -- I would imagine it gets stocked in a different part of the brain or in a different way in the brain, a narrow verbal one rather than a contextual one. With things like math and natural science and even linguistic vocabulary and syntax it seems important to have a broad base of exposure upon which to build the memorization.

As for mere habits, physical and moral and hygienic, etc, many can be taught by sheer repetition, but perhaps they aren't carried through life as well if they are just isolated physical reflexes rather than purposeful or intentional actions. Understanding and appreciation can enliven the practice of physical habits -- Sean does well at football not just because of training but because he loves the game and studies it.

I guess there's another category of "secondary memory" -- things like phone numbers, remembering appointments and birthdates and places you've been, values of coins, how to write checks -- things that aren't directly concerned with beauty, truth or goodness, though they aren't opposed to them either. These seem to partake of charity in a way in that these little things are usually connected with our duties or our affections. I remember my family's birthdays because I love them, and I remember how to do the laundry, drive a car, etc, because these things are concerned with the type of responsibilities I have. I'll have to think a bit more about that category. It's not "liberal" memory like the other things are -- it's useful memory, even what they called "servile" memory, but it's still something you can't get by without. So it doesn't concern "education" per se but it has a part to play in life.

I've noticed that a lot of schooly strategies fall into this category -- they aren't directly concerned with improving the mind or intellectual or moral habits, but are incidental. My son who goes to public high school had to learn to follow some rather arbitrary rules that applied only to one particular classroom or year. Having a plurality of these can make it difficult for a student to distinguish between what's truly a formative intellectual habit and what's simply an arbitrary convention. ... just like very complex public regulations make it difficult to practice true morality because they induce a kind of cynicism and disrespect for law in the ordinary citizen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!