The question comes up often. Why do we memorize so much information in Classical Conversations?
I have addressed the topic of memorization often in the past few years, and I am gathering all my links and quotes in this post for the sake of convenience.
Later this month I will share a bit about the structure of our days this year and what we are learning and memorizing, or taking to heart.
There are times when memorization is out of favor in education. Some might say that “rote memorization” is not appropriate as a teaching strategy. “Rote memorization,” however, is loaded language, biased against the discipline and effort required to learn things permanently. There is nothing wrong with challenge. We must remember that the alternative to remembering is forgetting, and when we teach something as important as grammar, that will be needed for one’s entire life, the ban on memorization makes little sense. There are areas of knowledge that should be memorized, and in the past, there was a better term for it: to learn by heart.
I watched this documentary when it was released. It brought me to tears. And it solidified my desire to have my boys memorize—poetry, speeches, Bible passages, history timeline, geography, prayers in Latin—not just because I want them to have the information at their fingertips, but because I want them to enlarge their hearts, to practice doing hard things, and to engage with ideas to the point of personal ownership.
Where we fail is in thinking that memorizing is an end. Rather, it is a doorway that leads to an exciting world.
It is a sense of accomplishment for kids. It empowers them. It gives them a chance to practice delivery in front of people—a huge skill. It is an introduction to big ideas. It is sophisticated vocabulary and language patterns embedded in their minds.
"[Memorization] serves a huge purpose. We're all sitting here wringing our hands at the sorry state of education. Everybody has got ideas: You've got to do STEM, and all of a sudden you've thrown the baby out with the bath water of humanities and arts and history. Nobody teaches civics anymore. People dismissed memorization 40 or 50 years ago as rote. It's not that; these kids prove it's not.
"I think the fact that we have completely tossed out memorization is a huge, huge flaw. Who knows, maybe that and civics are the glue that hold everything together? Civics is in fact politics, and politics is how things work not only in the political realm but in every other realm. It may be this simple mechanical glitch that unites everything. This is my philosophy."
But the craft of memorization is not just for our internal uses; like most crafts it has practical application. “As an art, memory was most importantly associated in the Middles Ages with composition, not simply with retention,” say Carruthers. “Those who practiced the crafts of memory used them—as all crafts are used—to make new things: prayers, meditations, sermons, pictures, hymns, stories, and poems.”
“A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.” [John-Steiner]
But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:
“It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.”
:: Anthony Esolen, author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, in the Foreword from Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott
“But more than that, we would desire to bring children into the garden of created being, and thought, and expression. Caldecott reminds us that for the medieval schoolmen, as for Plato, education was essentially musical, an education in the cosmos or lovely order that surrounds us and bears us up. Thus when we teach our youngest children by means of rhymes and songs, we do so not merely because rhymes and songs are actually effective mnemonic devices. We do so because we wish to form their souls by memory: we wish to bring them up as rememberers, as persons, born, as Caldecott points out, in certain localities, among certain people, who bear a certain history, and who claim our love and loyalty.”
:: Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
“It is not surprising that, for the Greek mind, the Muses—of epic, history, astronomy, music, dance, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, and sacred poetry—should be daughters of Memory.”
:: Andrew Pudewa, 1 Myth, 2 Truths
“One simple and immutable fact about the human brain is that you can’t get something out of it that isn’t there to start with. Supernatural inspiration notwithstanding, human beings in general—and children in particular—really can’t produce... thoughts or concepts that they haven’t first experienced and stored. In other words, we cannot think a thought we don’t have to begin with. Even the most unique, creative, and extraordinary ideas can only exist as a combination and permutation of previously learned bits of information.”
"Without memorizing some information, it’s harder for the brain to acquire new knowledge and skills. It takes longer for the brain to process new information, and students are less likely and slower to ask informed and perceptive questions.
“The more you know, the more you can make conclusions, even be creative,” Klemm said. “All of these things have to be done by thinking, and thinking has to be done from what’s in your working memory.”
"Creativity draws from many powers that we all have by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life, in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, cuisine, teaching, politics, business, you name it. And like many human capacities, our creative powers can be cultivated and refined. Doing that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas."
:: Memorization Should Not Be a Lost Art @ Lesson Planet
“Memorization allows scholars to warehouse, if you will, a stockpile of concepts. Important background information will only help learners throughout their lives. Also, the creativity process is a mysterious one. The more useful concepts that students have stored, the easier it is for their minds to sift through their "files" and allow them the satisfaction of discovering new ideas."
But I think they also knew that memorization allows things to become a source of future contemplation. When we memorize something such as a poem or a song, we have the ability to more deeply reflect on it, to understand it more fully as time goes on. Knowledge then no longer merely remains external to us; it becomes a part of us. We become knowledge.
The best argument for verse memorization 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 than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
:: The Joy of the Memorized Poem @ The Atlantic
"But the very final pleasure is what I called “the pleasure of companionship”—and this was a way of talking about memorization. When you internalize a poem, it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion. And so you become much less objective in your judgment of it. If anyone criticizes the poem, they’re criticizing something you take with you, all the time."
“I think that’s one reason I’ve always made my literature students choose a poem to memorize, even if it’s just something short—a little poem by, say, Emily Dickinson. They’re very resistant to it at first. There’s a collective groan when I tell them what they’re going to have to do. I think it’s because memorization is hard. You can't fake it the way you might in responding to an essay question. Either you have it by heart, or you don’t. And yet once they do get a poem memorized, they can’t wait to come into my office to say it. I love watching that movement from thinking of memorization as a kind of drudgery, to seeing it as internalizing, claiming, owning a poem. It’s no longer just something in a textbook—it’s something that you’ve placed within yourself.”
"I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance."
If you don’t know where to start for poetry memorization, may I make a few recommendations?
We have many books of poetry (I particularly like the Poetry for Young People series), but my favorites are poetry recordings that we can listen to in the car or during quiet time. I’ve found that this is the best way to get the words and sounds of the poetry embedded in our minds.
My boys love A Child's Garden of Songs and Back to the Garden, Robert Louis Stevenson poetry set to music, as well as The Days Gone By: Songs of the American Poets. (You can hear excerpts of the songs if you click on the MP3 option.)
Poetry Speaks to Children is a book of child-friendly poetry that includes a CD of poetry readings—most by the poem authors themselves!
A Child's Introduction to Poetry: Listen While You Learn About the Magic Words That Have Moved Mountains, Won Battles, and Made Us Laugh and Cry is just that. Part 1 introduces different types of poetry, and Part 2 contains a chronological introduction to many famous poets. (The illustrations are quite entertaining.) The accompanying CD is a treasure. Many of the poetry selections are wonderfully spoken by two different narrators (a man and a woman, so the recording doesn’t feel monotonous).
If you think that memorization is boring, you might enjoy the following video. No, we don’t have a two-story electric blue slide at our CC location, but our students enjoy singing and dancing (occasionally while standing on chairs) while practicing their memory work and my boys have been known to use a mini trampoline at home.