“As a Man Thinketh, so Is He…”: Memorization in Classical Education

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One of the hallmarks of Classical education is a commitment to memorization. Particularly in the early grades, children in Classical schools are known to apply themselves to memorizing many and lengthy pieces. For Catholic students, that hallmark characteristic extends to religious instruction, with the Baltimore Catechism, passages from Scripture, prayers, and the liturgy all becoming seminal features of the curriculum. Whether poetry or prose, memorization reflects an educational philosophy that is rooted in a particular anthropology, a view of what it means to be human. That understanding of what it means to be human shapes educational methods, not the other way around.

As Michael Knox Beran reminds us in his thorough examination of the benefits of memorization, it was not long ago that American school children were expected to know by heart not only such brief works as The Gettysburg Address, but also such lengthy poetic works as Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Today we live in the world that the educational theorist John Dewey begat, the world of Google. Dewey denigrated the importance of acquiring knowledge and memorization in favor of skill in using tools to find facts. Today, we generally accept that it really isn’t very important to know too much about anything because it is simple enough to find the information we need. With Siri or a search bar at our fingertips, the notion of committing vast amounts of information to memory seems terribly quaint. But this way of thinking about education misses the point of memorization—at least as it has been understood in Classical education.

It is certainly true that even the sharpest mind cannot rival even a modest library, not to mention Google’s encyclopedic scope. But that’s not why Classical educators give such prominence to memorization. The experience of memorization provides students not only with a certain body of knowledge and a certain elegant model of expression, it also prepares them for thinking itself by: 1) expanding their mental capacity for retaining information; 2) giving them familiarity with the use of language outside of their own colloquial experience; and 3) and developing their critical reasoning capacity.

As Beran writes in “In Defense of Memorization,”

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."

Poetry, in particular, is an aide to learning. By requiring children to decode language that is presented in a distinct and non-colloquial manner, poetry strengthens a student’s capacity for decoding language and diagnosing text in a way that prose cannot. It also introduces students to a use of the language they would not have otherwise imagined—and provides them with inspiration and a model for their own creative employment of terms, imagery, and linguistic device.

The habits of memorization contribute directly to future learning success by imparting to students crucial habits of mind. As Beran puts it,

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.

It is striking that for the ancient Greeks, Mnemosyne (Memory) is the mother of the muses. Rather than stifling the imagination, the memorization of great works by the young provides fodder for creativity. Anyone who observes young people can’t help be struck by how quickly they adopt new expressions and turns of phrase. The young are seemingly always speaking in a kind of language all their own—and they all seem to understand one another. All of us, but children in particular, are inclined to imitate what we see and hear, to make it our own, and to experiment with it. By providing students with great works to memorize, teachers equip students to learn from timeless masters alongside passing linguistic fads.

The regard for and commitment to memorization also reveal a high view of the value of knowing something as a kind of permanent possession. Interestingly, although the use has become archaic, the verb we use to communicate possession, “to own,” used to mean to know something or to esteem something to have certain characteristics. We sometimes encounter this use of the verb in the great hymns, especially with reference to the way that we express our faith in God; for example, in the hymn “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus:”

“Alleluia! King eternal, Thee the Lord of lords we own; Alleluia! born of Mary, Earth thy footstool, Heaven thy throne. Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh, our great high priest. Thou on earth both priest and victim In the Eucharistic feast.”

What we know is essential to who we are. In many ways, what we know defines us. This makes memorization not only a powerful tool, but a profoundly moral instrument. Precisely because it fixes in the mind certain things that we cannot really unlearn, it important to take care to be very selective in our intellectual diet. For this reason, Classical educators are committed not merely to memorization, but memorization of what has timeless worth.