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In Defense of Memorization
If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything. Even highly educated people in their thirties and forties are often unable to recite half a dozen lines of classic poetry or prose.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that kids in public schools from Boston to San Francisco committed poems like Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to memory. They declaimed passages from Shakespeare and Wordsworth, the Psalms and the Declaration of Independence. Even in the earliest grades they got by heart snippets of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “Abou Ben Adhem.” By 1970, however, this tradition was largely dead.
Should we care? Aren’t exercises in memorizing and reciting poetry and passages of prose an archaic curiosity, without educative value?
That too-common view is sadly wrong. Kids need both the poetry and the memorization. As educators have known for centuries, these exercises deliver unique cognitive benefits, benefits that are of special importance for kids who come from homes where books are scarce and the level of literacy low. In addition, such exercises etch the ideals of their civilization on children’s minds and hearts.
The memorization and recitation of the classic utterances of poets and statesmen form part of a tradition of learning that stretches back to classical antiquity, when the Greeks discovered that words and sounds—and the rhythmic patterns by which they were bound together in poetry—awakened the mind and shaped character. They made poetry the foundation of their pedagogy. Athenian schoolboys learned by heart the poetry of Homer, through which they gained mastery of their language and their culture. They memorized as well, in versified form, the civic pronouncements of Solon, the founder of the Athenian political tradition.
In every epoch of Western history we find educators insisting that their pupils serve an apprenticeship in the work of masters of poetry and rhetoric. Saint Augustine, as a schoolboy in North Africa in the fourth century, studied only a very few Latin classics in school, principally Virgil’s Aeneid, great chunks of which he learned by heart. But within its “narrow limits,” the historian Peter Brown wrote in his life of the saint, the education the young Augustine received was “perfectionist.” “Every word, every turn of phrase of these few classics,” Brown observed, “was significant and the student saw this.” The “aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of the ancient classic.”
Some of the ancient methods, Brown conceded, strike a modern mind as “servile”: but the paradoxical result of this early servitude was mental liberation. Augustine, Brown wrote, came “to love what he was learning. He had developed, through this education, a phenomenal memory, a tenacious attention to detail, an art of opening the heart, that still moves us as we read his Confessions.” In Virgil’s epic picture of the multiple passions of human life—paternal, filial, pious, romantic, patriotic, heroic—Augustine found a key to understanding his own heart, and in the rhetorical perfection of the Aeneid’s speeches he found a key with which to unlock the hearts of others. Virgil depicts Aeneas using his oratorical skill to steady, in adversity, the nerves of his men and build up what would become the Roman Empire:
Augustine would later use a similar set of rhetorical tools to build up the Roman Catholic Church.
More than a millennium later, in a grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, the mind of the young Shakespeare was formed by similar educational methods. In his book on Shakespeare, Michael Wood observed that the poet “was the product of a memorizing culture in which huge chunks of literature were learned by heart.” Such “learning by rote,” Wood wrote, “offers many rewards, not least a sense of poetry, rhythm and refinement—a heightened feel for language,” as well as an abundance of tales and myths, imaginative resources that are among the “most exciting gifts” a young person can receive.
These classic techniques of enveloping kids as young as seven or eight in the works of masters of poetry and rhetoric were transplanted to America, where they were incorporated into the readers and primers used throughout the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Well into the 1920s, rhyme-time occupied an important place in New York City public schools. Citing Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum that poetry is “the rhythmical creation of beauty,” the Board of Education, in its 1927 Course of Study in Literature for Elementary Schools, insisted on the importance of memorizing both poetry and prose orations. “The teacher,” the Board said, “should emphasize the rhythm, the beauty of diction, and the beauty of imagery [in a poem]. . . . Teachers should read a group of five poems somewhat similar in style and related in subject matter, so that the pupils may choose their favorite for memorization.” A “class may memorize only a part of a longer poem, or one or more selected stanzas, for the whole poem may not be suitable for memorization. Whenever possible, the lullabies and poems of the lower and middle years should be sung or presented by phonograph records. Much of our stirring patriotic verse has been set to music. Records of such songs are available.”
The standard of literacy in the 1927 Course of Study in Literature for Elementary Schools is astonishingly high. Poems “for reading and memorization” by first-graders include those of Robert Louis Stevenson (“Rain” and “The Land of Nod”), A. A. Milne (“Hoppity”), Christina Rossetti (“Four Pets”), and Charles Kingsley (“The Lost Doll”). Second-graders grappled with poems by Tennyson (“The Bee and the Flower”), Sara Coleridge (“The Garden Year”), and Lewis Carroll (“The Melancholy Pig”). In third grade came Blake’s “The Shepherd” and Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” while fourth grade brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Kipling. In the grades that followed, students read and recited poems by Arnold, Browning, Burns, Cowper, Emerson, Keats, Macaulay, Poe, Scott, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman, and Wordsworth. Eighth-graders tackled Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.
Observers were impressed by how quickly the kids mastered the material. A visitor to a first-grade classroom in New York in 1912 remarked on how quickly pupils absorbed the verses their teacher had sung to them. “At the end of twenty-five or thirty minutes,” the visitor said, “a large majority of the class seemed to know most of the words—a remarkable fact, since there were more than fifty children present and this was only the second week of school.” This was at a time when more than 200,000 immigrants were settling in New York each year, and teachers were staggering under the burden of large enrollments.
But the culture of recitation and memorization that prospered for centuries—and that, in New York, survived successive waves of immigration that stretched schools to their limits—declined rapidly after 1940. Even the rationale for such practices was forgotten. “No one seems to remember the reasons for memorizing or orating great poetry or speeches,” says education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary for educational research in the first Bush administration.
But the rationale is clear and compelling. Long before kids start school, parents begin to teach them language with the primitive poetry of the nursery rhyme. Before a two-year-old can understand the meaning of Little Jack Horner’s plum or Little Miss Muffet’s tuffet—before he knows what it means to hop on pop or why the pobble has no toes—he delights in the rhythm and rhyme of the verse; and by hearing the music of the verse often enough he comes gradually to understand first the sounds and eventually the words of which it is composed. I tried reciting to my three-year-old, over the course of a couple of weeks, Shakespeare’s sonnet “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” and Blake’s poem “Tyger, tyger, burning bright.” She could understand only a very few of the words; but when I recited one of the lines, she soon delighted in reciting the line that follows as nearly as she could. The music of the verse was as entrancing to her as to any grown-up. Without knowing it, a child who has learned a scrap of verse has been drawn into the civilizing interplay of music and language, rhythm and sound, melody and words—just as educational theory as far back as ancient Greece posits, according to Werner Jaeger in his classic account of Greek education, Paideia.
From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.
What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development. Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood). Mastering these concepts involves the most fundamental kind of learning, for these are the basic categories of thought and the framework in which we organize sensory experience. Kids need to become familiar with them not only through exercises in recitation and memorization, but also, as they proceed to the later grades, by construing, analyzing, and diagramming particular verses. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman called this close study of language “a discipline in accuracy of mind,” a “first step in intellectual training” that impresses on young minds notions of “method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony.” And of course memorization is a kind of exercise that strengthens the powers of the mind, just as physical exercise strengthens those of the body.
No less important, memorizing poetry turns on kids’ language capability. It not only teaches them to articulate English words; it heightens their feel for the intricacies and complexities of the English language—an indispensable attainment if they are to go on to speak, write, and read English with ease. Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, argues that memorization “builds into children’s minds an ability to use complex English syntax.” The student “who memorizes poetry will internalize” the “rhythmic, beautiful patterns” of the English language. These patterns then become “part of the student’s ‘language store,’ those wells that we all use every day in writing and speaking.” Without memorization, the student’s “language store,” Bauer says, will be limited: memorization stocks “the language store with a whole new set of language patterns.”
It also stocks those bins with a generous supply of the English language’s rich accumulation of words. Research suggests that the size of a child’s vocabulary plays an important part in determining the quality of his language-comprehension skills. “The greater and wider the vocabulary,” says education historian Ravitch, “the greater one’s comprehension of increasingly difficult material.” Bauer points out that if “a student reads a word in a novel, she might or might not remember it for later use. But when she commits it to memory in proper context (as the memorization of lines of poetry requires), she is much more likely to have it at her ‘mental fingertips’ for use in her own speaking and writing.”
All these benefits are especially important for inner-city kids. Bill Cosby recently pointed to the tragedy of the black kids he sees “standing on the corner” who “can’t speak English.” “I can’t even talk the way these people talk,” Cosby said: “ ‘Why you ain’t. Where you is.’ ” To kids who have never known anything but demotic English, literary English is bound to seem an alien, all but incomprehensible dialect. Kids who haven’t been exposed to the King’s English in primary school or at home will have a hard time, if they get to college, with works like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. In too many cases, they will give up entirely, unable to enter the community of literate citizens—and as a result will live in a world of constricted opportunity.
It is not only the form of poetry—its rhyme and meter—that endows it with unique educative properties. Just as crucial is its content. Poetry’s power makes it the ideal medium to introduce kids to their cultural inheritance as members of Western civilization and citizens of a particular nation. The content of the poetry fosters what education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr. calls “cultural literacy” in the kids who get it by heart, since great poetry is so often a pithy expression of the culture’s accumulated wisdom. Not to have certain works of art in your mental inventory—Macbeth, for example, or “Ozymandias” or Psalm 23—is to be shut out, to some degree, from the community of civilized conversation. Peter Brown observed that Saint Augustine’s education, with its emphasis on memorization, enabled him to “communicate his meaning to an educated Latin at the other end of the Roman world by quoting half a line of classic poetry.” And even today, in the conversation of the educated, a quotation from Shakespeare can speak volumes.
Much of what kids used to learn by heart was an explicit statement of the national creed. The schoolboys of classical Athens memorized the Homeric passages that taught the classical virtues. British pupils learned the great Shakespearean expressions of patriotism and national ideals: John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II describing his country as:
Or Henry V’s stirring speech to his troops at Agincourt:
American kids learned the Gettysburg Address, as profound a statement of the national ideal as anyone ever uttered; and those who remember as adults Lincoln’s affirmation of the nation’s dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal—and to government of the people, by the people, for the people—never can lose sight of what makes America exceptional.
The tradition of memorization did not survive the progressive revolution in American schools. A century ago, progressive educators first voiced the arguments that would have such an unfortunate effect in U.S. classrooms. To impose classic poetry and rhetoric on young minds was, these theorists maintained, an oppressive act. Not just the memorization, but the literary culture at the heart of the exercise, was, they claimed, sterile and unfruitful, and promoted a culture of servility harmful to the free creative play of the mind. “We must overcome the fetichism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry,” progressive educator G. Stanley Hall said in 1901. “The true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities.”
The progressives’ efforts to discredit the older techniques are not yet finished. The most recent challenge to recitation and memorization exercises comes from a theory known as “constructivism,” the latest fad among progressive educators. Based on the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, constructivism rests on the belief that objective knowledge does not exist; students must therefore “construct knowledge for themselves.” Education professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford calls constructivism the “new paradigm” and argues that because “learners actively construct” their own knowledge, teachers “must construct experiences for” their students to enable them to learn. In the view of constructivist educators, the teacher who gives a kid Portia’s speech, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,” or Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn” to memorize, fails to construct an atmosphere in which “dynamic” or “authentic” learning (to use two constructivist buzzwords) can occur. Memorization, one advocate of constructivism asserts, “is not a thinking activity.”
The constructivist literature is filled with unintentionally ludicrous jargon. “Constructivist teachers,” one educator declares, “must create an open, nonjudgmental environment that permits students to construct, disclose, and expose their constructions to scrutiny.” Another maintains that constructivism gives students “ownership of what they learn”—as if memorization doesn’t. But fundamentally, writes University of Alabama professor George E. Marsh II, the “impetus for constructivism as an educational movement stems from a reaction to the over-reliance in classrooms on rote memorization”—not just of poetry but of facts and dates, of tables and formulas. Marsh says that “memorizing the knowledge others have created is often not successful because knowledge is not a ready-made, transferable product but rather a product of the learner’s thinking.” Another educator, Asghar Iran-Nejad, argues that constructivist techniques can serve as “a substitute for memorization in learning.” Darling-Hammond echoes this sentiment when she advises teachers to “make sure the emphasis is on powerful learning, not rote memorization.”
Constructivism is a new name for the old progressive desire to turn kids into little anarchs who—if the progressives’ daydreams come true—will grow up to overthrow the oppressive civilization into which they had the misfortune to be born. An education Ph.D. enamored of the constructivist theory argues that because constructivism “de-emphasizes the rote-memorization” of material, it promotes “teaching practices that are rich in conversation. Through these conversations, the teacher comes to understand what the learner wants to learn.” Kids, in other words, should be free to do as they please; the teacher, in the role of “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage,” should cater to their whims; anything else is galley slavery. For progressive educators, to require students to recite “Daffodils” or memorize the Gettysburg Address is a relic of a “drill and kill” culture that inhibits the development of the self and is the educational equivalent of a chain gang.
But the progressives’ educational philosophy is only superficially a philosophy of liberty. The progressive exercises in “guided fantasy” and “sensitivity training” that have replaced memorization and recitation do little to free kids’ selves. The older techniques, by contrast, are genuinely liberating. They build up in the child a more powerful mental instrument, one that will allow him, in later life, to make good use of his freedom. They cultivate those critical powers that enable an educated adult to question authority intelligently. The older techniques also unlock doors in the interior world of the soul. Classic poetry and rhetoric give kids a language, at once subtle and copious, in which to articulate their own thoughts, perceptions, and inchoate feelings. They help awaken what was previously dormant, actualize what was before only potential, and so enable the young person to fulfill the injunction of Pindar: “Become what you are.”
This kind of memorization does not impose upon young minds a single dogma, nor does it exalt, as the Islamic madrassa does, a single text above all others. If anything, it is the progressive liturgies—with their “diversity” drills and cult of self-esteem—that embody a narrow and intolerant ideology, one that imprisons kids in the banal clichés of the present and puts much of the past off limits, as though the moral and spiritual inheritance of Western civilization were somehow taboo. The literary culture at the heart of these exercises in memorization, by contrast, is a record of how men and women have, in various times and places, struggled to understand themselves and make sense of their natures. Such culture does not repress or enslave: it enlarges and strengthens and frees
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Last modified: March 22, 2014