Mark These Words

In the Summer 2004 issue of City Journal, Michael Knox Beran wistfully describes the bygone days of classical education, when students were required to commit lines of both poetry and prose to memory. He makes an eloquent case, and I am sympathetic to his views (at least, some of them):

Without knowing it, a child who has learned a scrap of verse has been drawn into the civilizing interplay of music and language, rhythm and sound, melody and words—just as educational theory as far back as ancient Greek posits.

Unfortunately, he sometimes tries to pass off assertions as arguments, and he seems to conflate close study and memorization, which, last I heard, are two different things.

Read “In Defense of Memorization”

By the way, after seeing some of the other articles the City Journal publishes, I almost didn’t write about this one—but decided to go ahead with it, as a gesture of respect for my more right-leaning friends. Besides, I can appreciate an interesting article, even if it comes from a right-wing nutjob publication.

On a related note, Mark Edmundson, a popular English professor at the University of Virginia, has penned a piece in the New York Times about the value of reading. After dismissing other attempts to spread bibliophilia in the wake of the NEA report on the dramatic decline in literary reading, he makes his own case for why reading is so important.

To me, the best way to think about reading is as life’s grand second chance. …for many people, the process of socialization doesn’t quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don’t fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don’t read for information, and they don’t read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.

Read “The Risk of Reading”

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2 Responses to Mark These Words

  1. Dad says:

    One can never be deprived of things locked in one’s memory (the amount and clarity of which declines with advancing age, unfortunately), so to the extent those things are beautiful and valuable, committing things to memory is a good thing. Without agruing their relative value, I occasionally recall things like parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, hymns, scripture, a little poetry, and song lyrics that surprise even me – many times with considerable pleasure.

  2. Karl says:

    You’re absolutely right, Dad. I appreciate the insight. Memorization can be a curse, as well, though–especially if what you’ve memorized is the lyrics to a lot of “soft rock hits” of the 70s and 80s.
    In case anyone is interested, here are links to the online versions of three items that Michael Beran thinks we should all have in our “mental inventory”:

    • Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley
    • MacBeth by William Shakespeare (which part he thinks we should have memorized, he doesn’t say; maybe the whole thing?)
    • Psalm 23

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