Please forgive me for ignoring the main thrust of this post by William Deresiewicz. I’m just going to comment on one brief but strange passage:
A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.
A “thing of wonder”? Memorizing a mere thirty lines of poetry?
As I’ve often noted, in any class in which I assign poetry I ask students to memorize at least 50 lines (sometimes 100) and recite them to me. I’ve been doing that for more than twenty years now, and all the students get all the lines right. If they don’t, they come back until they do. It’s not a big deal. Yet to Deresiewicz, who taught for years at Yale, and his friend who teaches at a “top university,” the ability to recite thirty lines of Pope — probably the easiest major English poet to memorize, given his exclusive use of rhyming couplets — seems an astonishing mental feat. What would they think of John Basinger, who knows the whole of Paradise Lost by heart? Or even a three-year-old reciting a Billy Collins poem — which is also every bit of 30 lines?
In my school days I had to memorize only a few things: the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, a Shakespeare passage or two. But for previous generations, memorization and recitation were an essential and extensive part of their education. Perhaps only the classical Christian education movement keeps this old tradition alive. The amazement Deresiewicz and his friend feel at a completely trivial achievement indicates just how completely memorization has been abandoned. In another generation we’ll swoon at someone who can recite her own phone number.
UPDATE: Via my friend at Princeton University Press Jessica Pellien, a book by Catherine Robson called Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Here’s the Introduction in PDF.