David McConnell is a Lieutenant Colonel at the United States Military Academy. Dave describes how rigorous memorization training in his formative years instilled in him a love for English literature and the desire to pursue a military career with the US Army, leading him to his current role as an Instructor in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point.
Brent: You’ve told me that memorization was an integral part of your Catholic school education. What were you required to memorize?
Dave: I went to Catholic school from 5th grade until I graduated from high school in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Memorization was a key part of my education, particularly in history and English. Each year we would read a play by Shakespeare, and a requirement before taking the test on key characters, themes, and the overall summaries, was writing out the major soliloquy of the play. I remember distinctly memorizing, Macbeth's "Is this a dagger which I see before me," Marc Anthony's "Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your ears," and Hamlet's "To be or not to be," among others.
Brent: Smart move on the part of your instructors to make you write the lines out. How did these exercises influence your course of study?
Dave: It motivated me to memorize Henry V's monologues, "St. Crispin's Day Speech" and "Once more unto the breach." These last two provided me inspiration later when I chose the Army as a career and had the privilege of leading American soldiers.
Brent: What a fascinating next step.
Dave: I remember a time in school that I was caught dozing off during a discussion of the novel Animal Farm. As “punishment” I had to remember and recite, in front of the class, the anthem "Beasts of England." I'm not sure if the teacher realized the irony of making me memorize a famous call for revolution!
Brent: Ironic indeed! These days, after tours of duty in all parts of the world—Germany, Kosovo, Iraq, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—you teach English language literature to cadets at West Point. Do your students come to the Academy with the same preparation that you had?
Dave: I often ask my students if they had to memorize famous speeches. Only a few indicated that they had. It’s surprising because this focus on memorization helped me in all my classes, and I know that my students would have benefited from it, too.
Brent: What memorization approaches have worked best for you?
Dave: The most effective method for me is writing them out dozens of times. We had to learn large amount of information to prepare for exams that would maybe only cover one third of what we were responsible for.
Brent: Tell me about the visiting Shakespeare troupe that teaches West Point cadets how to memorize and get into character.
Dave: All freshman cadets are required to take a survey course in Literature. Each instructor chooses a Shakespeare play. Every cadet is responsible for memorizing and performing a Shakespeare monologue. Actors and actresses from the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival visit West Point each spring and work with cadets on exercises, voice modulation, and other techniques to prepare them for their performances. The requirement is to memorize and perform a monologue. Performances are graded on multiple factors, which may include character and mood, voice, movement, and level of commitment. Props and costumes are not required, but encouraged. Overall it is a great exercise, and each instructor selects the strongest performer to advance to a semifinal round culminating in an "Academy Idol" with a three-person judging panel.
Brent: How else are cadets taught to memorize material, such as rules and regulations?
Dave: I did not attend the United States Military Academy, but all incoming cadets, known as plebes, are required to memorize many aspects of the Army, West Point, rules and regulations, and other things, such as how many lights are in Cullum Hall and how many gallons of water are in Lusk Reservoir.
Brent: There are techniques, like the Major System, that can help with these kinds of numbers. It requires assigning a phonetic value to each digit and turning numbers into words. It’s how I mastered these same kinds of details back in college in my fraternity handbook and academic courses.
Dave: Interestingly, all incoming plebes on Reception Day (R Day) must report to a designed senior cadet with the words, "Sir/Ma'am, new cadet _____ reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash for the first time as ordered" (or the second, third or fourth time if they do not recite it correctly). Owing to the anxiety surrounding this reception, many must repeat the process. All cadets know how many times it took them to complete this task.
Brent: You’re doing your students a tremendous service by instilling in them a commitment to memorization. What else do you do personally to keep your own brain fit?
Dave: I love reading, but to keep my brain fit, I enjoy crosswords and working on Jumble. In the Army I attend many meetings, and I often place a crossword puzzle in my notebook and work on it during meetings. When I was in Iraq a colleague, unbeknownst to me, tipped off my boss of my practice. He approached me and asked to see my notebook. I had about a dozen crossword puzzle and Jumbles in the pages. In my defense I said, I've read that President Bill Clinton worked on puzzles during staff meeting. He responded, "Dave, you are no President Clinton."
Brent: Well, few of us are, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them. I find that crossword puzzles help me think faster on my feet as well.
Dave: Additionally, I like writing lists. For example I will write things such as all the teams in the major college football conferences, US states in alphabetical order, and a chronological lists of Soviet leaders starting with Lenin. Finally, I enjoy the creativity and challenge of writing haiku. I've authored several haiku for my students, usually about their experiences at West Point.
Brent: You are always in motion, writing and creating muscle memory. And, of course, vigorous physical exercise gets more oxygen to the brain. That is, in fact, how you and I met: running a half marathon in the Hudson Valley. Anything else you'd like to add?
Dave: I'm looking forward to reading you book, How Could I Forget You! While I like to memorize many things, I'm not strong with remembering names. This is important in the military. One would think that seeing that last names on peoples' uniforms would assist in remembering the first names, but alas, it still is a challenge for me.