The Merits of Memorization

To the editor:

In reading Michael Knox Beran’s "In Defense of Memorization" (Summer 2004), I learn not to trust my direct experience. My children have been attending a "progressive" school based, I am told, on the Bank Street philosophy. Every winter holiday season, the school’s open house celebration consists of children reciting to the assembled parents, sometimes solo and sometimes in pairs. The middle schoolers memorized the Gettysburg Address.

Vicky Perry
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Great article on memorization and its enemies. A while back, in an intro to lit course for sophomores at Emory University, I ended a class with an assignment to memorize a 20-line poem and recite it in class the next day. A student in the front row blurted out, "Why?" She wasn’t being impudent. She genuinely could not understand why one would ever want or need to memorize a poem. Obviously, nobody had ever asked her to do so before.

That’s where we are in literary education today. One would think that, with reading scores flat despite billions in investment, with 57 percent of high school seniors scoring "below basic" on the NAEP history test, and with only one senior in 25 scoring "advanced" in civics, the progressivists would look in the mirror and admit, "We’ve failed." Unlikely, to be sure, but how much evidence of error is necessary, how many years of decline must pass, before the education establishment abandons Dewey/Kilpatrick/Darling-Hammond and accepts "A Nation at Risk," standards-based curricula, and content-centered pedagogy?

Mark Bauerlein
National Endowment for the Arts

To the editor:
As a professor, I’m grateful for Michael Knox Beran’s "In Defense of Memorization." Teaching foreign language and literature, one quickly discovers how useful memorization is—for enriching students’ vocabulary, teaching them rhythm and intonation, and allowing them to appropriate thought and diction they—we—cannot "construct" on our own. Poems and plays only come fully to life when they are spoken, from the heart, by heart.

Christopher Maurer
Jones International University

To the editor:
Obviously, the fact that there are now plenty of ways to retrieve and keep information—the Internet, computers, public libraries, and even paper—does not strike Michael Knox Beran as a good enough reason for rote memorization to be abandoned, so he feels the need to blame a sinister cabal of "progressives." Rote memorization has its place—in the past. Today, it’s more important to teach children how to find the information they need and use it creatively.

Jorge Palinhos
Via e-mail

To the editor:
I teach at a little-university-on-the-prairie, and I spend the first month of every semester in every freshman course undoing the damage that "creative freedom" has done to my students. I feel strongly about this, since I too was a victim.

In seventh grade, I was tracked into a "creative writing" English class—away from the drudgery of diagramming sentences. It was great fun, but I never learned a lick of English grammar. I eventually learned German, French, Greek, and Latvian grammar, but never English grammar—except for those points where it intersects with these other languages. In what universe was I "liberated" by being allowed to "write creatively" when I couldn’t write in the first place?

I had teachers who killed off my love of literature and poetry. Fortunately, I had a grandmother who rescued me, when I was already well into graduate school, with a simple phrase. She insisted I memorize poetry. I insisted, like any smart-assed grad student, that rote memorization was the death of cognitive liberty. She snorted and said, "If you carry the poems around in your head, you can suck on them." I suddenly saw with complete clarity.

Anyway, Beran punched a few of my buttons. Thanks.

Mark C. E. Peterson
University of Wisconsin

To the editor:

I read "In Defense of Memorization" with great interest. I will soon be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to teach English. My employer wants its teachers to act as "guides on the side" in the classroom, eschewing traditional educational methods—memorization—in favor of "individual discovery." I have a question for people with this philosophy: If students just exercise creativity and inquisitiveness, are they expected to come up independently with the works of Frost, Dickens, Hugo, Dante, etc.? Did those authors’ works come from creativity alone, or did they memorize the language and build their skills that way? To me, it’s like saying we can put students who can’t drive into a car, let them be creative, and see what happens.

Anthony Retford
Via e-mail

The Gang Epidemic

To the editor:
I would like to thank Heather Mac Donald for "The Immigrant Gang Plague" (Summer 2004). As a Mexican-American born in South Side Chicago’s Brighton Park, I see how the gang problem is destroying our cities and our nation.

My family was among the first Hispanic families to move to (predominantly Lithuanian and Polish) Brighton Park in the 60s, and we were not treated like foreigners. I can remember how quiet and pristine the neighborhood used to be. People would sit on their front porches while kids rode Big Wheels up and down the block.

This neighborhood is now a war zone. I can hear sporadic gunfire as I sit in my living room. Broken glass and used condoms litter the sidewalks. It is impossible to park on my street now, since there are five families in each house, all with cars lacking plates, city stickers, and insurance. This is tolerated because King Richard Daley always gets the Hispanic vote.

The Mexican government held a conference last month about helping illegals into America to become U.S. citizens so that they can vote several states out of the Union. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true and was even covered on Univision and Telemundo.

Thanks for an outstanding article.

Mark Gutierrez
Chicago, IL

To the editor:
I live in Chicago, which has a huge illegal population and an ongoing gang problem. The jails can’t hold them all. Our school system is bursting at the seams. Even the ones who work use some kind of public assistance (which comes out of my paycheck, thank you very much). I am afraid to drive in my own neighborhood: they operate motor vehicles with no license or insurance, and if they hit you, they just take off.

In the long run, illegal immigration takes out much more than what it puts in to our economy. I am sick and tired of our spineless government being too scared to enforce our laws so as not to offend certain groups of people.

Daniel J. Williams
Via e-mail

To the editor:
I am a 71-year-old Mexican-American who has experienced the deterioration of towns and cities due to gangs. I am a retired psychiatric social worker with work experience in jails and prisons, and also as a drug-abuse counselor.

Everything in Ms. Mac Donald’s report rings true based on my observations in California, Arizona, and now Colorado.

James Jorquez
Via e-mail

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald has done a good job of exposing the folly of open borders. In my town, the police know who the gang members are, but they can’t ask their citizenship status and certainly can’t arrest them: Portland is a "sanctuary" city. Of course, citizens need a sanctuary from the increasing brutality of the gangs, but our politicians know best.

The insanity starts in the school system. My daughter teaches in a public school with approximately 50 employees. Only 17 are regular teachers. The rest are interpreters, ESL teachers, counselors, psychologists. The children even have their own attorneys if needed, courtesy of the taxpayer. Three of the regular teachers have decided to become ESL teachers. And why not? They will have small classes and not be accountable to anyone if the kids don’t learn. Teachers are required to send written material home in the household’s native language. This is probably a waste of time; most parents don’t communicate with the school or show up for conferences. Few of these kids will actually learn English at school, as their instruction time is scant—about 30 minutes every other day. Recently, the school’s cafeteria sported signs in three other languages above the sign HOT DOGS. Our tax dollars at work.

Barbara Anderson
Portland, OR

The Next Great Liberal Reform

To the editor
Robert P. George and David L. Tubbs’s argument against gay marriage ("Redefining Marriage Away," Summer 2004) is incredibly weak: gays will cheat on their partners and therefore lead heterosexuals into temptation? According to the U.S. Census, roughly half of all marriages already end in divorce. Are gays to blame for that, too?

They are just small-minded homophobes trying to rationalize their fear of people unlike themselves. Marriage is both a legal contract and a statement of commitment. It has nothing to do with breeding (by the way, I am a married breeder). And it has nothing to do with God, either. Frankly, it’s none of your business who marries whom.

Paul Stuart
Via e-mail

Robert P. George & David L. Tubbs respond:
The institution of marriage has been badly wounded by various pathologies abroad in our culture. A number of these pathologies are the result of legal changes introduced by liberal reformers. One particularly bad idea was the abolition of "fault" divorce standards. Were "gays" to blame? No. Liberals were. They asked: Why should someone who wants out be compelled by law to stay in a "loveless" marriage? Liberal reformers failed to see that the introduction of "no fault" divorce would dramatically alter people’s understanding of what it was they were committing to when they got married. The resulting epidemic of broken families has been a disaster, especially for the children of divorce. It came as a shock to liberal reformers when legal change had a profound cultural effect.

Now the liberals who "reformed" our divorce laws have come up with another bright idea: same-sex "marriage." This time, their "reform" will not simply damage the institution of marriage; it will ultimately abolish it. If the requirement of sexual complementarity is jettisoned, with it will go any basis of moral principle for the legal norms of monogamy and sexual exclusivity. Honest and clear-thinking supporters of same-sex "marriage," such as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley and Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog, admit this. As for marriage being "none of your business": isn’t the point of a social institution that it is everyone’s business?

Wal-Mart: Good for Business

To the editor:
I loved Steven Malanga’s "What Does the War on Wal-Mart Mean?" (Spring 2004)—especially its discussion of Wal-Mart’s suppliers. My dad runs operations and finance for an old, old Texas spice company, and had no experience in selling at that kind of scale. Well, Wal-Mart did; and their regional buyer—rather than wave her hand and say, "You don’t know how to do this, begone!"—actually stepped them through the process of preparing a bid.
My dad doesn’t like Wal-Mart on principle. (I remember what jackasses the local hardware and auto-parts stores were, and I think Wal-Mart is wonderful.) But he sure likes how much of his products they stand to sell.

Brent Ruple
Via e-mail


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