Many years ago, in the bustling urban anarchy of Harvard Square, sprawled just outside the Harvard University campus, sat an old man at a makeshift desk in a tiny corner, a large number of one-dollar notes laid out in front of him. What were those currency notes doing at the desk? He’d tell the visitor like a medieval town crier: “People! Whoever among you recites a sonnet of Shakespeare by heart, gets a dollar!” What an investment this was. Many people — especially young people perhaps imagining a handful of candies or a pizza slice — would try and fail, sometimes by stumbling over a single word, until one with a heartful of poetic treasure would emerge and wave the winning dollar before a cheering crowd. But then, the old man did reap the dividend of his investment, too, for some youngsters would go home and memorise a sonnet of the Elizabethan master, declaim it the next day and the old man — recognising them as past failures — would double the reward: now two dollars, good for homemade ice cream in the famous Brattle Street parlour!

Ah, this faculty of memory — it is the very agency that embodies our conscious existence as integral human beings, that is, beings with rational and psychological coherence, what we call our sanity. As long as I know that I am I, persisting through all kinds of temporal changes over the years, as long as I have this cognition, I have a conscious existence, a continuing ‘self’, and this self manifests itself through none other than my memory. One may go as far as to say that our self consists effectively in our memory. Listen to Robert Browning, how beautifully he announces the enduring continuity of his loving self in the eternal flow of time’s pure duration:

“Escape me?
Never —
While I am I and you are you …”

Moving to the real and concrete, it seems that our human world’s outstanding personages and geniuses in general possess surprisingly sharp (better: sharpened) memory. Such was the case of Annemarie Schimmel, the learned scholar of what was called Indo-Muslim culture; she would remember, for example, the specific dates of countless historical figures as if the entire scroll of world chronology were on display before her eyes. Then, another mentor of mine, the Nobel laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow, could describe graphically — even after the passage of a whole decade — the undulations of our Abdus Salam’s turban when they both gathered in Stockholm to receive the prize in 1979.

Ideologically loaded as it is, this rhetorical flourish has come to acquire an excess of meaning: that any mode of learning that fundamentally involves committing its objects to memory is destructive and even evil.

Here I recall my father, Allama Syed Muntakhabul Haq, who remembered my passport number even after 20 years. Growing up in financial dire straits, he once told me that he would borrow a desperately needed book from a friend, memorise it overnight under a street lamp and return it in the morning — now the book was preserved in his memory. The mindboggling memory of the philosopher Ibn Sina is often talked about — he carried in his heart a massive repository of Arabic poetry by the age of 10. In this cluster shine the musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the redoubtable Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib.

And yet, a ubiquitous pejorative expression has been ringing in our ears in recent days: ‘rote learning’. Ideologically loaded as it is, this rhetorical flourish has come to acquire an excess of meaning: that any mode of learning that fundamentally involves committing its objects to memory is destructive and even evil; evil because it was reminiscent of madressahs. As a matter of fact, an intellectually receding country such as Pakistan suffers a double jeopardy. On the one hand, technology has thrown much of the memory function into disuse all over the world — now a psychological process has been replaced by a tactile act, with the touchscreen substituting for the mind. So, rather than eliciting a piece of information by means of an imaginative-cerebral act, you tap a screen and slide a finger.

But the other horn of this jeopardy for postcolonial Pakistan is the dangerous rote learning rhetoric that has arisen out of a blind and blanket dislike of madressahs. These institutions are presented as promoting mindless cramming of material that is supposed to have no cognitive valence. What does this mean? It means a proactive suppression of all memory work not only from madressahs, but also from mainstream schools and colleges. This horn has a sharper tip and it causes way more bleeding.

So the baby has been thrown with the bathwater. Recently, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission invited an American educationist, Dr Barbara Oakley, to speak about “learning how to learn.” She was explicit: do not get “wrapped up,” she cautioned, in the propaganda “that rote learning is horrible”; it is, in fact, essential. Our own scholar Dr Najeeba Arif has lamented over the quality of Urdu writing on the part of new graduates — one main reason being exactly this getting wrapped up in the rhetoric, she observes.

But let’s pay heed to the poet and teacher Brad Leithauser; he makes poetry the final arbiter like the old man of Harvard Square. Writing in The New Yorker, Leithauser says, “[t]he best argument for verse memorisation may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level.”

The columnist is Professor of Comparative Liberal Studies at Habib University and Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 30th, 2019