Further thoughts on the art of memory and why it is important for children to remember

There is a question of the best purpose of literature for children that predate what we normally consider children’s literature by a very long time. In its simplest terms it asks if children should be educated or entertained.  Do children benefit best from pedagogy or imagination or is some combination of both required to transform a child with a book into an adult with properly functioning mind and this does not even address the question of what precisely is a properly functioning mind.  Over time there have been many ideas put forward, initially by philosophers then later by linguists and educators, then by psychologists. Today the question is taken up those who write for children and in some cases even children themselves in everything from scholarly journals to amateur blogs. The modern consensus is that reading; in fact all of education is best conveyed in a fashion that holds a student’s interest. The old ways of rote memorization have lost favor but this doesn’t mean children are necessarily better off intellectually or imaginatively or that their education is any better. A convincing argument can be made that children have been denied the valuable tools which come with a classically informed if not necessarily classical education, tools that are required for the creation of an adaptable and efficient memory.

   Why is memory important? This is a valid question especially considering the world, in which we live, a world that moves with ever increasingly alacrity and that demands immediacy. Short attention spans and ADHD have been attributed to lax parenting, genetic predisposition, the popularity of video games and the rise of instant communication that came with the internet a staggeringly short time period just over two decades ago. No doubt these played a role in creating the problem but alongside of these contributing factors we must consider the shift by educators away from old methods of education requiring memorization not only of facts and of facts and figures and poetry and significant persons and historical events. The sad reality is that too few children today are introduced to the importance of the art of memory.

    It is amazing to learn that children of the 19th century, at least those fortunate to have formal education could from memory recite long lines of poetry or that they understand Greek and Latin by memorizing classic texts. Even into the middle of the twentieth century children could recite from memory Americas founding documents the Declaration of Independence and for all its archaic wording and difficult minutia the Constitution of the United States. And the art of memory wasn’t confined to just the school room. Churches urged the memorization of bible passages while civic organization like the Boy’s and Girl’s Scouts encouraged their young members to commit to memory lists of virtues and rules governing social behavior. So important was this commitment to memory that even today most anyone who beloned to the Boy Scouts, myself included can recite the oath;

“On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight”.


And the Scouts Law;

“A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent”

Memory was at the core of child development from the time children were identified as being in a special and distinct class of persons.  It is amazing when we compare where children are today with where children once were educationally, intellectually and imaginatively because so few modern children are taught to remember much of anything. As a society we have been busy creating generations of persons with little capacity and even less interest in the old art of memory. We complain about low test scores, standardized testing, teachers not doing their job, parents not doing theirs. There is sufficient blame to go around but here is the thing. It is we adults who have forgotten the value of remembering not the children who have never been shown how much can be accomplished with a keen memory, how almost magical it is to recall things that are read, or heard or and this is terribly important, things that were dreamed of. You see when we stop practicing the art of memory; when we lose the ability to remember we also lose access to the repository of our dreams and ambitions. And this is a loss the world can never recover nor long survive.

   It is time we return to what was once accepted as so obvious. It is time we remembered the value of remembering. We don’t need to do away with entertaining children while we educate them. Far from it, children can only benefit from an environment that gives equal importance to memory and imaginative entertainment. I believe that the two must exist together if they are to flourish at all.  

   Educators and parents and indeed children need to embrace a new way of teaching and learning that itself embraces the old and the new ideas of pedagogy.  Memorization is more than just remembering. It sets the child into a framework, connects him or her to a long line of gone-before’ s, to their ancestors, their nation’s founders, the civic and religious icons that had so much to say invoices that can still speak to us if only we could remember what it was they were trying to tell us. Reading the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech makes us aware of the civil rights struggle. But memorizing it brings us into the shared dream of civil rights. For all our talk of race in America today, how far we have come and how far we have to go how often do we ask the little black boy and the little black girl of today  to remember that not so distant little black boy and the little black girl of whom King spoke so eloquently. How many black children can quote from Dr. King today? For that matter white children were not excluded from his dream yet how many know the speech was about them too? This speech, at least part of it is worth considering further because at its heart it is a call for us to look forward to tomorrow by remembering what was promised yesterday.

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.


I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together”.


Right from the beginning Dr. King called on the listener to remember a promise, THE promise of equality to all men. ““We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” But he did not stop there. Once we remember the promise we must also remember that the promise was denied “on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”.  Dr. King recalls asks the listener to remember the past and by remembering to invoke the ghosts of the pasts. This great speech is a call to remember our shard past, not just for blacks but for whites as well.  The idea of recalling the past courses through his phrases with all the eloquent power of the Old Testament Prophets what’s more the speech is not a relic of our past. It is an organic ideal that can become manifest if only we don’t forget what he asked us to remember.

Why should we remember old speeches? Perhaps we needn’t; maybe we can get along just fine never remembering the wisdom of our ancestors. Then again maybe not. You see we don’t simply live in a place called America. We live in a place that is comprised of events both wonderfully grand and terribly tragic; of people who lived to the fullest potential of human endeavor and who fell to the depths of human depravity.  Our founding fathers writings, the declaration of Independence and the Constitution are often disregarded as dry dusty documents but those documents deserve to be memorized by our children. How can we disregard and forget the words of those who promised that all men are created equal and still hope to remember what Dr. King called on us to remember?  We needn’t relegate them to the dustbin  of history as many would have us do because they were unable to live up their promises. Ours is not a nation free of mistakes but a nation has consistently moved through its mistakes to create something better, to create a dream worth sharing, a dream worth remembering.  When we can remember the words that built our nation, the words spoken by yesterday’s heroes we put ourselves in their shoes, walk the miles they walked and feel something of the heavy burden they carried. Among those parents who would raise their children to be peacemakers how many know the words of Chief Joseph by heart, how many know what it means to fight no more forever? Children must be encouraged to remember the words that will give strength to their character. Forget the words and surrender  the character.

   The art of memorization requires us to surrender our intelligence to the material being remembered and it is difficult to accept the idea of doing this but in so doing the mind itself is liberated. The poet Virgil wrote Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis”. It means to endure, and preserve yourselves for better things. Preservation is itself an act of memory. It requires skills learned by remembering what seems trivial like lines of poetry, or a story or an event. Only by intellectually and imaginatively preserving ourselves can we hope to fully realize what it means to be human beings.

   A personal hero of mine is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin the commander of the 20th Main and later General in the Union Army who rose to fame for his actions at Gettysburg. Chamberlin was a college professor and a rhetorician who often quoted lines from the classics which he felt to be pertinent to whatever task he and his men were about. His knowledge and wisdom was gained from a classic education that fostered memorization. This art of memory did not prevent war; it did not prevent him from being uncertain about his place in the conflict.  It did nothing to teach him of military arts, the drill or shooting and did nothing to prevent him or his men from doing the dirty business of war. It may then seem as if all of it was meaningless, after all it did nothing to prevent the tragedy of war, Up till then men always remembered war and yet still took up the sword with a perverse eagerness. Men and women of great intelligence whose memories were keen and swift are not exempted from violence, vice or disaster nor from repeating the same mistakes. It is said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it but remembering history is no remedy. What memory can accomplish is in a way more important than the faint dream of not making the same mistakes again. Memory helped Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin to recognize what he was seeing as familiar, to understand that what came to him had also come to others before. Memory also made possible the psychological healing needed after the horrible events of the Civil War. By remembering he was able to come to terms with what happened and by understanding he could pass it as wisdom along to others. His was the memory of a social elite, a man of some wealth and prominence and a high education but it was memory that set him apart and this was a trait shared by a surprisingly large number of rank and file soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies.

   Civil war diaries are filled with sentiments that recall lines of poetry and biblical passages the soldiers remembered from their youth, from their loved ones and from happier times. It wasn’t just their thoughts they were putting down, they were committing themselves to their families’ memory and to the memory of their country. They were preserving themselves for the better things of which Virgil wrote. Such is the importance of memory and such is the tragedy of what we are losing with everything we forget. As the 20th century progressed the importance we placed on memory was diminishing. It could even been seen as a liability to our mental health. Suppressed memories were studied and in some instances encouraged by psychoanalysts. Men and women were perfectly happy to forget the bad times like the depression and the World Wars. This is not say that everyone had lost the value of memory. The phrase never forget stands as a memorial to the millions who died, victims of a national regime that came to power by asking Germans to remember their own past and then corrupted that memory with false truths. This could be accomplished because the German people were more committed to forgetting the past than to remembering with bitter tears all they lost. It is no coincidence that the Jewish culture devoted to a long standing oral tradition would embrace the idea to never forget while so many others were already busy trying to forget what they what they saw, what they did. Forgetting is endemic today. Modern Germany has staunch laws prohibiting Nazi iconography. The topic is a taboo subject on the streets. Officially the reason cited is one of sensitivity but the truth is different and far less noble. It is a collective and national act of forgetting. Text books and history books today downplay the role of the German people and focus only on the Nazis, creating a mythic bogeyman. This too is an act of forgetting. We want to forget that otherwise good people could embrace something so horrible because remembering it means we have to confront out own dark natures. Do we really want our children growing up unable to examine themselves critically?

   By the time America entered the war in Vietnam memory had lost almost all of its importance. So committed were we to forgetting than it is easy to overlook the war that dominated the 1950’s itself called the forgotten war.  The refrain “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a counterculture call to forget as much as it was a call to explore new mental horizons. Vietnam veterans returned from the war eager to forget what they saw in effect to drop out and their fellow citizens were only too happy to help them forget. Facts, dates, events, names, stanzas are all the things we have so little interest in remembering but we lose so much in their forgetting. We lose ideas, hopes and dreams, promises made, transcendent words and elevating music, we lose all the things that is best of who were are and what we could be.

   So, I ask this question. Is it if any value to teach our children the value of memorization?

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