Mnemosyne is the ancient Greek goddess of memory and remembrance, and was revered for the invention of language. A daughter of heaven, she was worshiped in the classical period as a goddess of time. Moreover, she represents rote learning – the only way of recalling past events before the invention of writing. Only after the appearance of written language can we preserve stories of history, saga, myth and legend. Mnemosyne is also known as the mother of the Muses – originally the goddesses of poetry, drama and music.
She lives on in the English language today as the word “mnemonic” – a device used to aid one’s memory. As a boy, I remember learning the mnemonic phrase “Richard Of York Gained Battle In Vain,” in order to recall the colours of the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet).
Memory used to be thought of as a precious commodity for young people but one which, I fear, we are in danger of allowing to atrophy. This week, I was with a class of AS English Literature students studying Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I noticed how they turned almost unconsciously to their mobile phones (and Google) whenever a question arose about events and ideas outside the text of the play. When I quoted lines from it to them (memorised in class probably 50 or more years ago) they were either a) astounded at my freakish ability, or b) quick to check with Google whether I had delivered the words accurately or not.
Anthropologists have long been aware of the prodigious feats of memory displayed by people who have no written language. Tribes who live deep in the Amazon rainforest, for example, can recite family histories and genealogy going back centuries: with no written script, they have to rely on recall alone. In a way, this makes the memory behave like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. I have read that elderly actors and actresses retain the ability to memorise lines from play scripts simply because it is a major job requirement: they must be able to do it into their dotage if they want to be employable.
So, with our contemporary reliance on Google, is the act of memorisation declining in the youth of today? It would appear so. I watch some of our students performing on stage singing at KYUEM, and they usually have the words of the song discreetly to hand via their iPhones or Android devices. Rote learning for me as a child formed part of the way I was taught. I can recall poems, multiplication tables and so on, right back to early childhood. When I mention this to some of our students, they smile politely and then ask what’s the point? If Google can do the job for you, why use up some of your valuable brain capacity on the needless storage of information? An IT analogy, I suppose, might be: why store files on your computer, when they can be safely kept in the Cloud and accessed whenever, and wherever, you like?
This argument is persuasive, but a tiny seed of doubt remains. We are always going to need to recall things without resorting to electronic aids. English Lit students are not allowed to bring their books or any mobile phones into CIE examinations. If they want to quote lines from Shakespeare to prove a point in an essay, they will have to have memorised them first. Perhaps they need to start exercising this old-fashioned “muscle” in plenty of time for their examinations next semester!