So, a lot of the edublogerrati have heard of and referenced Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow. It's one of those memes--the desired state of total immersion in a complex task that enables you to experience a state of semi-ecstasy--that's easy to grasp and difficult to implement. But, I had never actually read the book and so when I finally picked it up from my library queue I was surprised to find what was inside. I was especially surprised by the idea of how the entire reason for Flow was to learn how to control your inner consciousness and how that would result in the closest thing to happiness we mere humans could ever know.

There is of course the general idea of flow and how it relates to different aspects of life (leisure, thinking, work, sex), but there is an interesting section on memorizing that sneaks up on you.

...for a person who has nothing to remember, life can be severely impoverished. This possibility was completely overlooked by educational reformers early in this century, who, armed with research results, proved that "rote learning" was not an efficient way to store and acquire information...But if control of consciousness is judged to be at least as important as the ability to get things done, then learning complex patterns of information by heart is by no means a waste of effort. A mind with some stable content to it is much richer than one without. It is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. Some of the most original scientists, for instance have been known to have memorized music, poetry, or historical information extensively.

This is hard to take for teachers who've been influenced by the George Siemens of the world who envision that the Internet is a big hive mind that can take care of the mere storage of information so we Morlocks will be able to do whatever it is we do without having to remember when exactly the Smoot-Hawley tariff was enacted. Why remember the Internet will do it for me?

Still, Csikszentmihalyi made me rethink all of that. There is something Zen about the practice of flashcards and looking askew at the ceiling as you try to pack information in your head. For me, the practice of memorizing my lines for Romeo and Juliet (I was Tybalt, dead by Act III) stays with me and when I'm bored I'll sometimes picture myself delivering monologues in my mental space to mental audiences. In Islam, a certain subset of believers (the hafiz) memorize the entire Koran. There is something beautiful in the act of truly owning information, truly making the ideas and details of wisdom and history ours without having to plug into Wikipedia to extract them. It makes the whole dispiriting act of memorizing vocab words take on a more enlightened glow. Especially if we imagine the possibilities that memorizing poetry might have on our students (see here, here, here, and here).

So, how can we reconcile our desire to avoid the drudgery of memorizing facts uselessly with the fact that the process of memorizing can be beneficial to our mental states.

Views: 29

Comment by Steve Hargadon on April 10, 2007 at 5:17pm
What a great post. Yes, I have felt the same sense of loss when I hear memorizing dismissed... but I didn't have the vocabulary to clarify my thoughts as you have done. Thank you. My kids have been in a Shakespeare troupe for a couple of years and the memorizing of those lines has been, I've felt, really beneficial to them.
Comment by sschwister on April 11, 2007 at 11:22pm
I'll second Steve. This is a simply beautiful piece of writing. Shakespeare counterbalanced by Smoot-Hawley, faith traditions and poetics. I'll be thinking on this one for a while to come.

And I took a tangential trip over to your blog and was suitably impressed (read: blown away) by the work you and your students are doing.

Glad to have found you, and looking forward to reading more.
Comment by SparklingDrift on April 12, 2007 at 2:03pm
Thanks to both of you...I've been a long time lurker and consumer of information and I am just trying to dip into the comment/posting/communication side of the Internet. Steve, thanks especially for doing the grunt work to provide a forum.


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