Tonight for homework you will memorize…

This is my last of my guest-blogging posts. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for inviting me to do this again. And thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful comments.

It would be announced with great fanfare across the land: the seventh-grade sonnet experiment. Across the country, seventh graders who participated in an intensive ten-week course on sonnets would be compared with those who did not. “Research would show” that two years later, the sonnet studiers would be better writers than the control group—that their essays, letters, and other compositions had benefited from the sonnet course.

Then the objections would come rolling in: How can you tell it was the sonnet study that brought about the improvement? Perhaps they were learning good writing over the course of the sonnet study? Perhaps their schools (which participated voluntarily) had an advantage to begin with? Who is to say that the effects would be replicated? Why do we need such a study to justify the memorization of sonnets or any other poems?

Indeed, why should we have to do double backwards somersaults to justify the idea of having students memorize a sonnet? Why isn’t poetry memorization—including sonnet memorization—part of the curriculum in every grade? Why has it become something for the privileged, or for an unusual school or class here and there?

There are plenty of good reasons to memorize poems; one does not have to scrounge for them. The most obvious reason for memorization is to have the poem with you always. It is a great thing to tilt and turn in the mind. If you have a long train commute, if you are waiting in a long line, you can recite it silently. In her 2000 introduction to The American Reader, Diane Ravitch writes, “Words that are learned ‘by heart’ become one’s personal treasure, available when needed.” Sometimes a line might come to you by surprise, or you might understand a phrase in a new way. Or it may help you in a difficult time. You can find some pleasure, as Wordsworth says, “Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”

When you memorize a sonnet in particular, you know a compact train of thought. The sonnet has room for many shapes of argument, all in the space of fourteen lines. You develop an instinct for the motion, rhythm, and balance of an argument, for the combination of logic and word play. It’s like holding a rubber band and knowing just how far it will stretch. (For more on the logic of sonnets, see Richard Wilbur’s interview in the Atlantic.) [Read more...]

Holding the gate against ideas

“The government wastes hundres of millions of dollars on math and science programs that never seem to improve the test scores of American students,” writes Barbara Oakley in Take This Paradigm and Shove It in Psychology Today. She blames “intellectual gatekeepers” who keep unfashionable ideas from being debated and funded. 

. . . today’s K-12 educators—unlike educators in other high-scoring countries of the world—refuse to acknowledge evidence that memorization plays an important role in mastering mathematics. Any proposed program that supports memorization is deemed to be against “creativity” by today’s intellectual gatekeepers in K-12 education, including those behind the Math and Science Partnerships. As one NSF program director told me: “We hear about success stories with practice and repetition-based programs like Kumon Mathematics. But I’ll be frank with you—you’ll never get anything like that funded. We don’t believe in it.” Instead the intellectual leadership in education encourages enormously expensive pimping programs that put America even further behind the international learning curve.

“Pimping” programs? Hmmm.

In the education world, what potentially good ideas are outside the gate?

Bar the bar exam?

Abolish the bar exam or make it optional, writes Ilya Somin on The Volokh Conspiracy.  Let clients decide if they need a lawyer who’s passed the bar or just one who’s completed law school.

If the exam is required, don’t let the state bar association run it, Somin argues. Not unless his modest proposal is adopted:

(State bar officials and bar examiners) should be required to take and pass the bar exam every year by getting the same passing score that they require of ordinary test takers. Any who fail to pass should be immediately dismissed from their positions, and their failure publicly announced (perhaps at a special press conference by the state attorney general).

Few could pass without cramming, he predicts.

. . . (bar exams) test knowledge of thousands of arcane legal rules that only a tiny minority of practicing lawyers ever use. This material isn’t on the exam because you can’t be a competent lawyer if you don’t know it. It’s there so as to make it more difficult to pass, thereby diminishing competition for current bar association members (the people whose representatives, not coincidentally, control the bar exam process in most states – either directly or through their lobbying efforts). Effectively, bar exams screen out potential lawyers who are bad at memorization or who don’t have the time and money to take a bar prep course or spend weeks on exam preparation.

My daughter will take the California bar exam tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday. Fortunately, she’s good at memorization and the law firm that wants to hire her (but not till 2010) paid for a prep course. She’s been studying like a fiend for the last two months. She’s good at taking tests. She was graduated from a challenging law school (University of Chicago). So, she’ll probably do fine. Probably.

One section of the exam asks test takers to apply legal knowledge to a sample case. The rest has nothing to do with practicing law, she says. It’s about memorizing rules you’ll probably never need and can look up if you do.