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A teacher laments as learning becoming a fading memory

Posted by Susannah Blair  May 17, 2012 10:00 AM

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One of my students, a graduating senior, was in my office the other day. She was calling a potential internship site using my office phone, as her cell phone wasn’t staying charged.  When she asked me if she should leave the cell phone number, knowing her phone was on the fritz, I suggested she give the internship site her home number. “But I don’t know my home number,” she said, “it’s saved on my cell.”

And I thought to myself, how could you not know your home number? Yet, I am constantly reminded that people and not just young people, don’t bother to memorize phone numbers any longer. This is just another one of those interesting phenomena of modern life.

Being a member of the baby boomer generation I learned the phone numbers of friends I knew growing up because it was always such a laborious task to look up a friend’s number in the thick phone book, with its tissue thin pages, the tiny print, and trying to figure out which Murphy out of the 25 or so listed belonged to my friend Janet.  But I realize that people today don’t memorize numbers, since cell phones store all that information for us and we can scroll and find the numbers, so why memorize?  Many phones allow you to just say a name and it finds the number for you and dials it.  I admit to loving this feature, yet nonetheless, I still committed to memory close friends’ and family phone numbers, because, I remind myself, what would happen to me if I lost my phone? 

But as an educator, my student’s lack of memorization has me worried for other reasons.  Sometimes in class I’ll ask a question that was not covered in the assigned reading – something a bit extraneous but germane to the discussion, and someone will immediately pull out a smart phone and attempt to “Google” the answer, or another will open their laptop to do the same thing.  When I see this, I say, “Stop, we can remember this if we try.”  Yet my students always say, “No this is easier!” 

The other day in class I found myself asking them how they remember things, and they responded by saying, “Why commit something to memory, when you can easily just look it up?”  I attempted to give them a few strategies for how I remember things, such as attempting to recall the people I was with, the season I saw a film or a play, or in an effort to recall an author’s name or the title of a book I run through a mental alphabetical rolodex. 

As a teacher this nonchalance for recalling information troubles me. I wonder if this lack of making our brains remember things, or the over reliance on a series of electronic devices to do our memorizing for us will have more far reaching effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love these slim, clever devices: from my smart phone to my laptop, I think it’s all fabulous. 

When I mention to my students how fortunate they are (as am I) to have the Internet, Google, Bing, JStor and Wikipedia to search for answers and look for articles, I am reminded of my mother attempting to illuminate my three brothers and me on how blessed we were to have television, and all the many other wonderful 20th century wonders.  As the youngest of six growing up in The Bronx in the  40’s, my mother didn’t have a TV or a car and in my selfish, wiseacre childish way  I can remember thinking  to myself, yeah, well, too bad for you, and lucky us to have the great fortune to be born after dinosaurs ruled the earth.  

Certainly, a case could be made for how television took a toll on our imaginations – no more fireside chats, no more radio shows when families would gather, and their imaginations filled in the flesh and blood of the characters they heard broadcasted into their homes from those giant wooden radios, that looked like the gateways to cathedrals in miniature. 

MTV did that to songs that we listen to on the radio.  Before 1980 when I’d listen to The Stones or Springsteen I’d either envision the band/singer standing in front of microphones on stage or a scene the lyrics might remind me of in my own life.   I couldn’t listen to the aptly named Beach Boys without visualizing waves, smooth sand and the boys and the girls who showed up because of those elements, but it is hard today to imagine a song if you’re an ardent MTV fan without the video playing in your head.  Think of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Still, my question again is:  are we better or worse off for this?  

Have our imaginations and memories become dulled?

 Is the reading of the book a better way to engage our minds than just seeing the film?  As human beings should we require ourselves to do both?  As I read the chapter about the burning of Atlanta in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, was my mind more actively engaged than it was when I watched the scene unfold on my television screen?  The legions of children that read J.K. Rowling’s  Harry Potter series, did they make the distinction between the books and the films, was one a better learning/artistic/imaginative experience than the other? I do not know.  

But this brings me back to my point about memorizing. In my class “Writing for Politics” we examined a number of stirring pieces of writing, but one of my favorites was the brief address that Robert Kennedy made on a soft April evening in 1968.

When Martin Luther King died on that fateful spring day, cities across the U.S. erupted in violence.  Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the Presidency and after leaving cheering crowds in South Bend and at Ball State University, he flew to Indianapolis for his final campaign stop of the day.  The police warned Mr. Kennedy not to speak, because they couldn’t guarantee his safety.  On the flight there, Kennedy had his speech writers with him, but refused their aid. He wrote his notes on an envelope.  

As he addressed the crowd Kennedy quoted Aeschylus, "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."   

In my life those words have given me comfort, as I know they did for the citizens of Indianapolis that evening, as I am sure they did for Mr. Kennedy when he thought about the loss of his two older brothers and sister.  

Kennedy concluded his comments, and  reiterated his belief that the country needed and wanted unity between blacks and whites and encouraged the citizens before him to, "dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world." 

How might that terrible evening have ended if not for those enduring words?  Back in 1968 Mr. Kennedy couldn’t “Google” the Aeschylus quote; he had to have memorized it.

Should we memorize/commit to memory more?  

I know that if I don’t get to the gym on a regular basis, the next time I attempt to do 50 repetitions on a machine becomes something like 32 before I am out of breath.  Or the first time I take my bike out in the spring, the hill between my town and the next seems longer and steeper than it was the last time I biked it in fall. So if we don’t make our minds remember and memorize, names, events, poetry, lines of inspiration, will we ultimately lose the power to do so? 

My student who didn’t know her home telephone number will graduate magna cum laude this coming Saturday, and deservedly so.  She must have memorized and written much in her four years with us.  She is bright, energetic and lovely to be around, and is one of those kids when you watch them walk across the stage at graduation, your heart fills as this accomplished, wonderful young person shakes the President’s hand, and receives her diploma, but you also know that the University’s halls have lost some of their luster.    So she doesn’t know her phone number – I just hope she remembers the poetry we taught her, the histories, the philosophies, the French, the many other life lessons – and commits to memory words that will encourage, inspire and support her, all of her days.

Regina Robbins Flynn of Salem teaches in the English Department’s Professional Writing Program at Salem State University. She can be reached at rflynn@salemstate.edu.

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