Forgetting to Remember

I’m not gonna lie—it took a long time to unpack from my summer journey. In fact, I think there are still a few toiletries stashed in a cardboard box in the back room and some plastic bins in the basement that haven’t returned to their previous homes. Why bother, really, when I spent six weeks living abundantly out of a now-ratty, silver-grey Target suitcase?

Indeed, why bother coming home at all? There are few things the Mediterranean sun can’t cure, and I’ve never felt more alive than prowling around the museums where my favorite paintings are stashed or the churches housing objects that are sacred to an art nerd like me. Well, the little grey cat, my best drinking buddy, and the nice boy who cooks were among the most compelling reasons to return home. And also there’s the issue of that pesky PhD in art history that I simply must finish. One more year of coursework and I can take my final qualifying exam and start my dissertation.

And seriously, the PhD, for all its stress and agony, is something I truly want to accomplish. But my summer travels added another layer to my reasons for pursuing the subject of medieval studies—an interest in its relevance today, in ideas that manifested themselves centuries ago and never went away. The Renaissance, that so-called Early Modern period, wasn’t a rebirth of anything, really; in many ways it incorporated new ways of interpreting ideas that had been hanging around for a long time while temporarily sweeping other ideas under the rug. In the present, we can ponder some new ways of seeing those ideas.

For instance, not long ago I ran across an article in The New York Times claiming that moving your studying location from one spot to another can help you retain information better than having a permanent, predetermined homework location.[i] Associating various places with information helps to burn it into memory. As both a student and a teacher, I found this inspiring. You mean it’s okay for me to sneak off to the park or the house where I’m cat-sitting to do homework because I’m just too bored to keep reading at my desk? And why did science take so long to share this wisdom? My first exposure to a ‘work smarter, not harder’ mode of thinking actually came from Scrooge McDuck, but apparently the concept is much older than a 1980s cartoon.

When I shared the article with a friend who teaches writing to high school students, he reminded me that both ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans were well aware of the connection between location and memory, citing the ancient technique of memory rooms and medieval monks’ technique for learning Stations of the Cross. The method of loci was invented by Simonides of Ceos, a poet who lived around 500 BCE. He recalled a long list of individuals by memorizing their locations within an imaginary building; moving around that imagined location served as a mnemonic device for him to conjure up their names.[ii] In the middle ages Christian pilgrims would often pray at the Stations of the Cross by pausing before each of a series of images of Christ’s passion, “physically retracing this path and meditating upon the events,” in order to experience and remember each scene of the narrative.[iii] Humanity’s great thinkers to have spent much time considering the most effective ways of controlling and organizing memory, including Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas who wrote, “whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider and set in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another.”[iv] In centuries when literacy was rare, flashcards were unheard of, and multitasking hadn’t been invented, mnemonic devices were not only useful but necessary means for maintaining knowledge.

Ah, putting my thoughts in order. Forming a strategy for studying. Not getting buried under a pile of books. These are things a harried grad student often forgets to do. And strategies many students never really learn at all. (I’ve lost track of how many undergrads have claimed they’re “just not good with names and dates.” Join the club, folks). So of course the ancients are a good starting point for how to tackle a pile of homework and avoid the often-ephemeral character of just-read pages. The Times articles is just one more contribution to the wisdom of the ages on a subject that is just as relevant now as it was two thousand years ago.


[i] Benedict Carey, “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” The New York Times, September 6, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html

[ii] “mnemonic adj. n.”  A Dictionary of Psychology. Edited by Andrew M. Colman. Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  CUNY Graduate Center.  22 October 2010  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t87.e5144>

[iii] “Stations of the Cross,” in Leslie Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenport Publishing Group, 1996.

[iv] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 3 (Part II, Second Section), Q. 49 Art. 2. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

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