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Education Reporter

In Defense of Memorization
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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 learned by heart snippets of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or "Abou Ben Adhem." By 1970, 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?

Unique cognitive benefits

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. ...

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. ...

Shakespeare memorized

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. ...

Decline after 1940

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. . 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 ....

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. ... 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.

Enhancing students' syntax

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." ...

Enlarging stock of words

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. ... 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. ...

Fostering cultural literacy

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.

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, 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. ...

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. ... Memorization, one advocate of constructivism asserts, "is not a thinking activity." ... 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. ...

Memorizing strengthens, frees

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 clich's 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.

This article first appeared in The City Journal and is reprinted here in abridged form, with permission.

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