Try to Remember.....

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen!  Lend me your ears!"




I can still see the wide smile on my former student’s face as he greeted me with those famous words of Marc Antony.  The salutation was testimony that he still remembered an assignment he had been given in my class.  Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” was part of our reading program each year, and a traditional task involved the memorization of a chunk of the Bard’s work.  

Shakespeare wasn’t the only author we committed to memory.  During the year students usually tackled some lines from Mark Twain.  Childhood visits to his uncle’s farm inspired words worth remembering:  

I can remember the bare wooden stairway, and the turn to the left above the landing, and the rafters and the slanting roof over my bed, and the squares of moonlight on the floor, and the white cold world of snow outside, seen through the curtainless window.


We also recited poetry from memory, including what some have called the most memorized poem of all time, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Many readers will recognize the first stanza:  
“Whose wood these are, I think I know, his house is in the village, though. He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow.”

A century ago, memorization was the mainstay of education.  Students in one-room schools were required to recite passages from their McGuffey Readers.  Long before that era, young William Shakespeare and his schoolmates did practically nothing else in their Stratford school except memorize great pieces of literature, and in Latin no less.  

These days, what is termed “rote memorization” is out of fashion in school   It seems inconsistent with the trend toward student creativity, free-thinking, and personal self-expression.  Educators are rightly concerned with individual learning styles.  But there’s something to be said for the mental gymnastics involved with memorization of selected pieces of good literature.  The exercise requires concentration, discipline, and practice.  It is not an assignment that can be dashed off while riding the bus or achieved by filling in the blanks.

Today’s youngsters are immersed in a world of electronic media.  Their eyes are glued to video screens.  Surrounded by pictures and music, they are oblivious to the quiet pleasure found in good writing.  Perhaps that’s why many of them don’t have much interest in reading.  They have not learned to appreciate what might be called linguistic beauty.  That’s where a memorization assignment could be a very good thing.  As author Michael Wood has said, “Learning by rote offers many rewards, not least a sense of poetry, rhythm, and refinement - a heightened feel for language.”  

Many adults can probably still reach back into their memory banks and retrieve snippets of treasures from their school days.  Perhaps it’s “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere” or “Once upon a midnight dreary,” or “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Students still do a little memorizing.  As we approach the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, some teachers will encourage students to learn one of the greatest speeches of all time.  Its 271 words have echoed for over 140 years.  You know the one.  It begins with “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  

There is power in well-crafted prose and poetry.  Beauty, too.  When students memorize something, they learn it “by heart.”  They take ownership of great words, and Shakespeare and Twain and Lincoln go with them as they journey into the world.  I guess that makes a little rote memorization a pretty valuable assignment once in a while.