Sometimes today’s success can be achieved by recalling yesterday’s secrets. A look at yesterday’s version of elementary language instruction reveals an important language art neglected today.
“Classical education,” the name given to the form of education dominant in the West from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, focused almost exclusively on language development through early high school years. Complete mastery of language was the goal. Students learned to account for every word they used. They could express a word’s part of speech, its syntax, its purpose in the logic of their presentation, and the emotional impact they expected it to have. Masters of words – Shakespeare, Jefferson, Lincoln, Thoreau – were its products.
The beginning of this mastery lay in memorization. Students learned by heart whatever was accessible to them of the classics in poetry and prose – Aesop’s Fables, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and verses, great historical events. The intention was much more than instilling facts through jingles, like the ABC song. Children’s memories were filled with lifetime language models. The vocabulary, structure, imagery, rhythm, and composition techniques of masters, though not perfectly understood, became second nature to them.
Formal recitation was practiced each day. Teachers and older pupils showed how verses and stories should be read in such a way as to bring out their meaning and power. Students then recited themselves, imitating as they could the performance they had seen.
“‘It’s the Fourth of July, and on this day somebody’s got to read the Declaration of Independence. It looks like I’m elected, so hold your hats boys; I’m going to read it.’ Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words.” Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie
Learning by heart has fallen out of fashion in contemporary education. Besides following an overall trend of de-emphasizing language development, many teachers (including myself) have bad memories of memorization. This is because we encountered serious memorization too late, at an age when the developing mind wants so much more. Other than spelling and multiplication tables which were very easy, I did no formal memorizing until picking up Latin vocabulary and paradigms beginning in eighth grade, when I found it such a chore that I too frequently ignored it.
Memorization to be successful and pleasant (or at least not enormously painful) must be introduced at an early age. Renowned translator, critic, and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, in a 1947 essay entitled, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” distinguishes three stages of child psychology in relation to learning. In the early years, which she calls the “Poll-Parrot” stage, observation and memory are most naturally alive, “learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished…one enjoys the mere accumulation of things.” Foreign languages, including Latin or Greek, are most easily begun at this age, also poems and famous speeches, along with historical names and dates, common and scientific names of animals and plants, states and capitals, constellations and planets. My sixth grade daughter just impressed me with her knowledge, appropriate for a Californian, of the technical vocabulary of earthquakes – syncline and anticline, Richter and moment magnitude scales, shearing and tension. She’s nervous about her test, but obviously pleased with what she has learned.
Besides strict, word-for-word memorization, we might speak of a soft memorization that comes into play when re-telling familiar stories. Many young children love to tell the stories of their favorite movies, those they’ve seen a hundred times. That native talent should be developed in elementary school as well, but this time with the stories of books and histories. Even before they can read, they listen eagerly to stories read to them. Teachers develop the memory by having students practice re-telling the stories. Other children listening can be encouraged to add details to complete or fill-in the picture.
Religion class is one in which learning by heart is especially appropriate. Soft memorization takes the form of Biblical and Church history. At this time, children can begin a life-long relationship with Abraham and David and Elijah, Peter and John, the Samaritan woman; their minds are open to the details of the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s temple, and the Book of Revelation’s heavenly court in a way they likely never will be again.
Learning by heart the chief prayers of the Church, such as the Our Father and the Creed, is also most possible at this age. Hymns rich in Biblical imagery and Church doctrine will naturally be committed to memory through repetition. We can add to this the old practice of memorizing catechetical formulas. At a young age, this is a not unpleasant exercise in which the child feels his mind growing. The adult will always carry with him simple, clear expressions of Church doctrine. Of course, as children mature, they will naturally raise more and more questions, which should be welcomed and explored. But the catechism gives them a basis for precise questions, good questions, and can be the source of many answers.
Our technological society has made learning by heart seem obsolete. Yet the human mind has an amazing natural capacity for it. Societies without public libraries and Amazon.com passed along their most precious literary gifts, such as the twenty-four books of Homer’s Iliad and the stories of Abraham, by memory. Neglected in the early years, this great, native power of the child will be completely lost to the adult.