Regardless of the source, our inner mental dialogue consists of many quotations, song lyrics, movie quotes, and poetry references. We draw on this inner pool of words when we think, write, and speak. Some pools are shallow; others are deep, varied, and rich.
Throughout the centuries, great thinkers have relied upon their stocks of memorized poetry, prose, oratory, drama, and history to fuel and inform their creative works. Patriotism, nobility of thought and action, gracious behavior, and honor were instilled in children from an early age by the practice of rote memorization.
Until about the 1970s, schoolchildren in classrooms would regularly memorize classic poetry and oratory. This practice inducted children into the cultural dialogue of English-speakers and equipped them with the inner rhythms, tools, metaphors, characters, and vocabulary of our rich language.
Sadly this practice is no longer current. However, children are still memorizing words—it is part of the way they learn. Only now, instead of memorizing the building blocks of intellectual prowess and personal expression in the form of the Great Conversation, they are memorizing dialogue from cartoons, lyrics from the vapid pop songs that flood our airways, and words used in food and toy commercials.
It’s time to begin giving our children the gift of memorization once again. We will certainly benefit at the same time, for possibly we have missed the boat ourselves. We will find ourselves empowered along with our children, and our homes will be enriched by the current of thought scored into our memories, and thus, into our hearts.
The goal of memorization, at least in how it’s used for this article, is to actively ingest and digest worthy words and sentiments, allowing their meaning and form to be impressed upon the very fabric of our souls. This kind of memorization will allow us to, years from now, recall the haunting “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and tell the tale in whispers to our children. Or, when facing the ocean for the first time, we might remember Homer’s “wine-dark sea” and have words to express the wordless wonder oppressing our souls. Memorization places us squarely in the stream of history and fills us with the great thoughts of those who have gone before. It is the ideal internalization.
In the context of academics, there’s nothing wrong with simple rote memorization—the parrot-like “sing-song” of children reciting nursery rhymes is not inherently wrong. In fact, it is a necessary stage in the appreciation of rhythm and meter, and is what will allow our students to analyze and read with appreciation the harder work of modern poets and the twisted, convoluted, yet rewarding prose of the classical masters.
Will memorization create mere “parrots” who lack the ability to think for themselves? Unlikely, if treated in the right way. In the classical model of education, children spend the first few years of their lives acquiring facts, figures, rhythms, and forms that will accompany them as they mature and give them the ability to test their growing thoughts and opinions against those of others. Memorization is a crucial aspect of the grammar stage of the classical trivium.
This trivium, which is part of a larger method of education, consists of the Grammar, or elementary, stage, the Logic, or question, stage, and the Rhetoric, or reasoning, stage. The first (roughly first through fourth grade) consists of learning facts and figures about the world, to prepare the mind for asking questions and putting disparate concepts together in the second (roughly fifth through eighth grades) and beginning to speak, debate, form opinions, and reason persuasively in the last (high school).
As homeschooling parents, you have the gift of picking and choosing from the educational systems of the past such elements as seem appropriate to you. If memorization is to be an aspect of your schooling, it is important to approach the practice with a plan.
Set goals. What do you want your children (and, possibly, yourself) to memorize? If you have sections of Scripture you feel would particularly help them, that’s a great place to start. If you want to delve into poetry but don’t know where to begin, I suggest checking out one of the many books available on the subject. The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg address, and other American documents of merit may be advantageous in the study of history.
There is not enough room in this article to discuss methods of memorization, but in a nutshell, recognize how you and your children learn best and try to slant the memorization toward those styles. For example, I’m a visual learner, so I do well with an index card with the words on one side and a mnemonic, i.e., the first letter from every word, on the other. An auditory learner would benefit from hearing and repeating the words out loud.
Consistency is important in memorization. Review new information several times a day, then once a day, then once a week. It helps to keep a list of what you’re working on and to have multiple members of the family memorizing the same things.
As you pursue memorization of worthy words in your family, it is likely you yourself will be enriched even as the family conversation deepens and grows full in allusion, metaphor, and shared mental images. Know that you are joining the great stream of wise and seeking-to-be-wise throughout the ages, and that you are benefiting your children beyond a doubt.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps from www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your Kindle Fire or Apple or Android devices.
Emily McIntyre, a homeschool graduate, is a Kansas City-based freelance writer and harpist who has placed work in a wide variety of publications ranging from Rails to Trails to Missouri Life to Renaissance Magazine. She also writes a blog, softexplosions.blogspot.com. She and her husband had their first child in February. When not writing, she enjoys reading and cooking.
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