Are we losing our ability to memorize? And if we are, does it matter?

The elephant has the longest memory of any member of the animal kingdom and can even remember where other elephants have died.

Years ago, when I taught, I resisted the requirement that I give tests that required memorization. I remembered the many nights as a student that I memorized material, aced the test the next morning, and promptly forgot everything. I wanted my students to learn to think. They could look up data; I hoped they would learn how to use it.

A few decades later and all we have to do is “google it.” The Internet remembers for us, and does it so much better than we ever could. You’d think I’d be happy, wouldn’t you? At least in this regard, things in education seem to be going my way.

It’s not that no one is memorizing any more. I googled “memorize” and found a wealth of information on how to do it. Journalist Joshua Foer received more than $1 million in advance royalties for his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. An analysis of the importance of memorizing events and stories in human history; the decline of its role in modern life; and the techniques that we need to adopt to restore the art of remembering—the advance surely demonstrates that someone besides Mr. Foer thinks the subject is a critical one.

I haven’t read it and I may not. It sounds like the author spends more time than I would like on how he won the annual US Memory Championships after learning how to memorize 120 random digits in five minutes; the first and last names of 156 strangers in 15 minutes; and a deck of cards in under two minutes. True to form, I would have preferred more analysis of the role of human memory in the past and the present. I wanted him to think more and memorize less, I guess.

Before reading and writing became central in our lives, human beings transmitted their culture, their social mores and their stories by memory. In societies where literacy is still not dominant, medicine men and the old and wise are able to recite from their oral traditions for hours at a time. Learning was largely learning by rote well into the last century. I remember listening in amazement one night a few decades ago, to young voices in the park reciting classroom lessons in Port-au-Prince. I remember admiring old men who could still recite Longfellow’s “Evangeline” and Kipling’s “If…,” learned years earlier in school.

I, at a rather advanced age now, find that I lose words all the time—most of them nouns, most of them names of people. I don’t think I’ll buy Mr. Foer’s book and try to remedy that. And I certainly don’t care about remembering phone numbers or random digits. But I do think that I’m missing something now that I no longer try to memorize anything. What I’m missing is the way words feel in your mouth when you recite them. It has to do with poetry remembered and said aloud. It’s a different experience of words and, I suspect, a very important one. I hope we recover it.

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