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A Case for the Lost Art of Memorization

A Case for the Lost Art of Memorization

Memorization and recitation became part of my life through a club I was part of in middle and high school. With the club, I had the opportunity to recite patriotic speeches and poems along with chapters from the Bible in front of an audience of veterans, law enforcement officers, and first responders just about every month. I loved seeing how the words recited touched the people listening.

Almost without fail, after we spoke, adults would come over to thank us, amazed by the fact that we could remember so much and recite it with such confidence. Often, people said something along the lines of “I never thought kids could do that” or “That’s more than I would ever be able to do.”

There’s something about memorization that seems intimidating. When the topic is broached, many seem to throw up a mental wall. Unfortunately, in a society where literature and information are readily accessible, we don’t feel the need to invest in memorization or keep an oral tradition alive.

In my senior year of high school, I memorized a soliloquy from Hamlet for my literature class. As I read and repeated lines to myself each day for several weeks, I gained a new appreciation for Shakespeare. I noticed and absorbed the metaphors in the passage on a deeper level. The depth of what Shakespeare was saying as Hamlet battled with himself became evident. Because I spent so much time studying it, this soliloquy is now my favorite passage in the play.

In our world today, we have largely lost this deeper learning experience. What we memorize becomes a part of us, in a sense. This impacts the way we view the world and gives us context for understanding other information. Memorization gives us the chance to hold on to great words that should not be forgotten.

Similarly, the practice of committing something to memory prompts thought, refection, and analysis of the text. As a result, if we seek to become better speakers, we can memorize great speeches. If we want become deeper thinkers, we can memorize a passage that has had great influence over culture both ancient and modern.

Contrary to popular belief, memorization is not hard in and of itself. Yes, it can be slow and requires dedication. But most people have probably memorized far more information than they realize without spending disciplined time drilling it into memory. (How many songs do you know by heart?)

One method I have found helpful is reading and repeating short sections of the passage I am trying to memorize. I also enjoy quizzing myself, seeing how far I can get without having to look at the text. A family member who is reading through the text as I recite it can prompt or correct me when I slip up or can’t remember what comes next.

To get started, choose a passage that you would like to know by heart. This could be a passage in a book, a verse, a speech, or a poem. The length doesn’t matter. The key is committing to working on it regularly (maybe post it on the bathroom mirror so you can read it while getting ready for the day). If you really want to get motivated, sign up to recite your piece at an event or find a group of people to hold you accountable.

Whenever people seemed surprised that young children could memorize speeches like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” I wondered if they realized how much fun memorizing it had been. Even though memorization has become something of a lost art, we are never too young or too old to start memorizing. Our minds will always be filled with information. Let’s have some of that information include the words of the great minds of the past.

Image credit: Pexels

Samantha Roth

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  • Avatar
    August 17, 2023, 6:20 pm

    This article reminds me of an interview that Harold Bloom had with Charlie Rose back in the '90s, where Bloom had said something along the lines of "Memorization is akin to possessing a form of ownership on a profound level". A point ubiquitously lost in modern education, a response, or an over-reaction, by pedagogical theorists against memorization. a healthy eclecticism of study strategies would most benefit scholarship today.

  • Avatar
    August 18, 2023, 7:49 am

    Freemasonry learned this centuries ago. Even today, members can recite vast amounts of information routinely.

  • Avatar
    Mary Poindexter McLaughlin
    August 18, 2023, 4:53 pm

    All three of my children went to a Waldorf school from K through 8, where memorization of poems, great literature, speeches, and drama were daily occurrences. And all three of them — decades later — now have a deep appreciation for those words. It's as though the spirit of those great works imprinted itself on their hearts.

  • Avatar
    Richard Cerbo
    January 17, 2024, 9:46 pm

    Rote memorization is one form of learning, but there are others…And why we learn is important…


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