Before we can answer the title question, we need to ask, what is memory, and why is developing memory an important component of education? Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) gives us an excellent answer: “Memory,” he says, “is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
My memory protects my experiences, preserving them for me. But memory does this not merely for my private amusement. Rather, memory holds and guards my past because reflection on that past as understood through my moral faculties defines who I am, what I believe, and how I act in the world right now. As I add new experiences to my treasury of memories, who I am, what I believe, and how I act can change. In much the same way, conditions that degrade or destroy treasured memories change me.
I think here specifically of Joan, my late mother-in-law. In the last few years of her life, she suffered from increasingly serious memory problems. As a result, her personality changed. She became acerbic, confrontational, suspicious, and fearful. During her more lucid times, she regretted her sharp words and expressed sadness for not being who she had been. I was blessed that she almost always remembered me, and I treasure the memory of those minutes I spent sitting next to her bed, holding her hand, and singing to and with her songs that she remembered, like treasures yet unstolen by her condition.
In our modern age of high-tech gadgetry, it seems as if we have exchanged organic memory (data stored in my mind that I recall more or less at will) for externalized memory (that which depends on tools to store data for me). To a certain extent, this is unavoidable. The culture we have would not be possible without, for example, the written word, which requires tools such as pen, ink, paper, and books. Still, it does seem as if the contents of my brain diminish as the number of bytes stored on my hard drive grows.
As a quick aside, I feel there is good reason to question the necessity of how much I rely on external memory. James Madison, for example, didn’t have a personal computer, an iPad, or Google, and yet I am confident that at any point in our respective lives when we were the same age, Madison knew and remembered more than I.
This process of substituting organic memory with externalized memory leads to troubling questions. Does this process make me more or less proficient? More or less knowledgeable? And, most importantly, more or less virtuous?
It seems as if I can build a strong case for externalized memory making me less proficient, knowledgeable, and virtuous. The more data I have stored only in externalized memory, the fewer resources I have at my immediate disposal to help me correctly choose how to act.
What might memory’s role in virtuous action look like? In 2005, I converted and was received into the Catholic Church. Catholics have a long tradition of rote memorization of prayers such as the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, the Act of Contrition, and so forth. At first, I gave this portion of my new church’s tradition something of the short shrift. I didn’t see how memorizing a prayer could be that important. After all, am I not eloquent enough to pray extemporaneously? Still, over the years, I had memorized several prayers, often by osmosis. I had heard other people pray those prayers so often that they sort of sank in.
Memorization’s importance was hammered home when I had my heart attack in October 2011. I was in my hospital room, waiting to be wheeled into the operating room where the doctors were going to make an incision through my thigh into my femoral artery so that a camera could be run up into my heart to check for blockages, damage to cardiac muscles, et cetera. I was scared, and in that fear, I was not capable of extemporaneous prayer. What I was capable of, however, was prayer that rote memorization had etched into my mind (or, poetically, had written on my heart). In that time of distress, when calm thought was not possible, my memory, which held treasures of my faith, gave me the tools I needed to find some measure of peace via the words of the Memorare.
Which brings us to prudence, the charioteer of the virtues. Prudence is the ability to discern between right and wrong, between good and bad. Through prudence, I am able to choose a course of action that best uses the other virtues — justice, courage, and temperance — to arrive at a good decision. Prudence is not, however, some sort of supernatural insight. It isn’t a flash of inspiration by which I suddenly become aware of the right thing to do. Instead, prudence is formed by reflection on previous actions, whether my own or someone else’s.
Prudence without memory isn’t wisdom; it’s guesswork.
In that hospital room, I needed courage. My memory guarded examples of men and women of faith who drew strength from prayer, and my memory had also guarded some prayers. I was able to recall the tools I needed to find that courage. This bears restating: Because I had previously memorized certain things, I was able to recall the tools I needed to act virtuously.
In my next article, I’ll return to the issue of educating children and attempt to explain why children must be required to memorize things as well.