To practice memorization without cultivating a culture of memory is like planting a rosebush in sand. All the water in the world will not bring it to flourishing, for the soil in which it’s planted simply cannot sustain it.
“Memory is the cabinet of imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, the counsel-chamber of thought”: these words, quoted at last month’s CiRCE conference, have continued to percolate in my reflections on what I heard there, helping to rehabilitate the very word “memory” from its eroded modern definition—the mere storing of information, accomplished as efficiently by an external hard drive as by a human mind. Running straight through the conference was the insistence that human memory is so much more.
Once upon a time, there was a land in of pure and perfect proportion. Unlike our cities, in which highways and buildings and rivers and trees often tumble over one another in unsightly haphazardom, this land boasted hill folding into hill, building rising from building, and streets and rivers flowing in elegant curves, wherever the eye could see. But, strangely, this graceful land lacked any trace of color, sound, or scent; no music, no laughter, no gardens, no paintings, no feasts filled its symmetric architecture. Would such a land be habitable?
Once upon a time, when I was a little girl taking piano lessons, I noticed it was “cool” for the older students, after delivering an impressive performance of a Beethoven sonata or Rachmaninoff concerto, to rise with an air of lazy nonchalance, saunter back to their seats, and casually mutter, “Only got to practice two hours this whole week.”
What was the most significant thought or skill that you learned in this study?
What was the least significant thought or skill that you learned in this study?
What did I do in presenting this that furthered your learning?
What did I do in presenting this that obstructed your learning?
What line or passage moved you the most in this reading?
What from this study do you want to remember?
What advice would you give next year’s students in studying this?
Classical teachers become classical teachers because they have fallen in love with the Good, and, like all who are in love, can speak of nothing but the beloved. Their deep desire to capture, as in a prism, a beam of the Good, and to display its glory refracted through literature and music and art and philosophy and the maths and sciences, compels them into the classroom.
In the press and rush of planning, grading, lecturing, it becomes easy to think that the end of teaching is to plan, to grade, to lecture—and so to confuse the means of teaching with its ends: the getting of wisdom, the forming of virtue, the knowing of God, and the making of friends.
If anything defined my childhood summers, it was The Play.
We had been practicing the common topics of rhetoric for several weeks when one of the students approached me after class, brow furrowed. “Miss Brigham,” he confided, “these things are messing with me.”
(My teacher’s heart rejoiced within me. If “things messing with me” means assumptions and desires being displaced, upended, rearranged, then surely this is an excellent—albeit colloquial—definition of learning itself.)
Which is more formative for our students: what we teach, or how we teach?