Memento Mori: Let Us Now Praise the Power of Memory

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here
to the unfinished work which they who fought here
have thus far so nobly advanced.

–Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863

My father, an Army logistics officer in World War II, only told a few war stories when we were growing up in the 50s and 60s. The one about crossing Italy in the winter in a Jeep – “Half the time it pulled me and the other half I pulled it,” my father laughed – made me a lifelong lover of Jeeps*. I thought he made up the one about losing his hearing as a result of an enemy bullet piercing his helmet and spinning violently around on the inside, bursting ear drums and his dreams of being a lawyer – until I found the helmet in the back of a closet one day. I once caught my father in the bathroom, his foot hoisted into the sink, a washcloth carefully tending a set of shockingly gnarled and yellowed toes – frostbite, he admitted, from the war. He didn’t say it, but my guess was that it came from the pulling part of that winter Jeep trek across Italy. The body remembers.

My father never went into much detail about these things until years later, while in his 80s and suffering the setbacks of multiple strokes and unable to recall whether he had breakfast, much less what he had eaten. He began to tell stories from the war that I had never heard while growing up – the bloody bad ones — and they seemed to spill out, I supposed, because that was all that was left of his memory. And he cried as he told them, something else he had never done before. If we are lucky, as he was until debilitated by the whip of age, good memories crowd out the bad. I interviewed some of the Americans held hostage for 444 days by the Iranians, from 1979 to 1981, and many cited childhood memories – the good grandmother, the summer vacation, the wonderful teacher — as helping them cope.

But I have also interviewed those whose memories are so crowded with violence that they know only violence. They were the ones who suffered the stress of absent or rotten parents or, later, became the victims of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of the stress of living with death on a distant battlefield. Their traumatic memories crowded out the good; they wrecked their lives – or the lives of others. For better or worse, we can not – do not! — live without memory. So there is the question: What shall our memories be?

A few years after my father died I happened to be visiting Franklin Roosevelt’s Hudson River estate in Hyde Park, NY, for a story I was writing on presidential libraries and I asked my guide how extensive a picture collection the library had. I was immediately ushered into a large room with row after row of stacked gray metal drawers. “Pretty extensive,” he smiled, with a wide wave of the hand. “Would you happen to have a shot of FDR riding in a Jeep at the Casablanca Conference?” I asked. Within minutes I was looking at a dozen different black-and-white pictures of the crippled president in fedora, riding in the vehicle that was part of my childhood — through the wonderful story my father often told of being woken up in the middle of the Moroccan night in January of 1943 and ordered to take a crew to the base garage and a retrofit a Jeep “for a handicapped person.” Fifty years later I was staring at pictures of FDR speeding across the Casablanca airport tarmac in a little convertible Willy’s Jeep holding on to the metal bar that my father and his welding crew had just installed hours before. My dad the hero.

The moral of these stories is perhaps too simple: that we are not only lost without memory, we are also driven by it. And, of course, this Memorial Day, some of that message is repeated over and over. It is memorial day, after all, national memory day. This is not as simple, however, as learning history, the failure of which is pretty much a plague on our nation (see here and, from Fordham, here and here); it is about forming habits of remembering and then making sure that living and learning are part of it. How important is history to the future?

Intuitively, we all know the function of memory; my father’s war “wounds” were physical, mental, emotional; he did not transmit the bad memories until the end. Many kids are not so lucky. Bad memories – a fall, a hit, an accident — leave scars. They hurt. There are kids who live nightmares every night, victimized by the bad memories of their parents – and those memories are brought to school.

As educators, we need to remember that good memories are paths to good living – and our schools must do whatever they can to teach the habit of remembering. Memories are stamps on the psychic DNA. “Handed down from my father” is the cliché. How many presidential speeches give credit to mothers and fathers, a teacher? A couple of days ago, Scott Simon was interviewing cellist Alisa Weilerstein on NPR and to the question, why cello? Weilerstein told the story of her grandmother making musical instruments out of cereal boxes one day when Weilerstein was not quite three years old. The infant took to the Rice Krispies box, which was the cello, and never looked back. (There is a story on the NPR site this morning called To Make a Memorable Meal Start with a Memory.) This morning’s Times has a lengthy profile of the newest member of Congress, Kathleen Hochul, whose interest in politics, reporter Raymond Hernandez writes, was acquired “after a teacher took her class to Buffalo City Hall for a tour.” The rest is history, as they say.

Our lives are not anything other than living what we have learned – and what we have learned is in our memory. This is why I cringe every time I see “rote memorization” ridiculed. What would be so wrong in memorizing The Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, The Raven? In fact, it is precisely rote memorization – that which is inexplicably and inexorably lodged in our memories — which provides the basis for all our current habits, including that of breaking free from them; including too the bad habit of having no memory – which leaves us bereft of any direction. The other day I ran across a kid in our Intermediate school whose sixth-grade class I entertained a couple months ago (for Dr. Seuss’s birthday) by reading Solomon Grundy and then having the class memorize it – outloud, altogether now! Solomon Grundy, Born of a Monday, Christened on Tuesday, Married on Wednesday….) and I asked the young man, two months later, “Remember what I read?” and without skipping a beat, and while skipping down the stairs, he reeled off Solomon Grundy, proud of his rote memorization. My God, I thought, what else was he capable of remembering? Memory is essential to our future – we need to practice it.

As I wrote in my Habits of Mindlessness post a few months ago, quoting Proverbs, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” What is training other than remembering? And what is school other than an amazing opportunity for smart people to teach children how to remember. In that Habits post I quoted from a Ted Sizer statement (from Horace’s School) that is often overlooked in citing the great educator’s wisdom:

Good schools are places where one gets the stuff of knowledge—that is, crudely, “the facts” –where one learns to use that stuff, and where one gets into the habit of such use.

Habit? Practice? As I wrote then,

Most of the modern purveyors of habits of mind forget the mind part; the habit of learning “the facts” and using them. And when Sizer says “the facts,” he means it. He’s not talking vague standards. “A student learns the Bill of Rights,” he notes in the very next sentence, “what those constitutional amendments say, precisely, and what they meant at the time of their framing. He learns then to use the Bill of Rights to understand past, present, and even possible situations.” Note his precisely.

It may be too farfetched to declare every day a national rote memorization day, but we need to do something to train our children to remember what it is they need to know.

–Peter Meyer

*This is not a paid plug; it’s the power of memory and probably says something about the reasons advertisers spend so much more time and money trying to hook kids on a potato chip brand than educators spend hooking them on the Great Books.

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