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GRAVES: ‘Learn the Address’ effort reminder of lost art of memorization in schools

  By Joe Graves

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Mitchell Superintendent

The recent commemorations of the sesquicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were both interesting and telling.

That any speech could be worthy of note 150 years after its recitation is, in today’s atmosphere of endless blather of political speech, little short of astonishing. Yet, there it was, occupying the entire front page of The Daily Republic, a reprinting of the speech in its entirety along with an historic photo of the occasion from the site of that recent abattoir. That a newspaper could find it in its heart and budget (copy space equals money in the newspaper business) to devote such prime real estate to “the speech” warmed the very cockles of this former American history teacher’s heart.

Edifying as well was the effort by documentarian Ken Burns to bring the address home to a new generation of students through his “Learn the Address” effort, in which famous people recited the brief discourse on camera, and all Americans were encouraged to do the same. Mitchell High School students in John Solberg’s civics and Kent VanOverschelde’s American government classes took up that torch and recorded their own version.

That a “Learn the Address” effort was even necessary would leave previous generations of Americans nonplussed. For my father’s generation and, to a lesser extent, even for mine, the memorization of important speeches, poems and prose was a regular part of the curriculum. My father had memorized all 17 stanzas of Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman,” as a requirement of an English class at the Ocheyedan Community School District. He could not only recite it from memory, he was quite adept at bringing to life the rhythm of the poem, with all of its dramatic inflections. Any time one of my brothers or I complained about some supposedly onerous classroom task foisted upon us by unreasonable teachers, he would respond without explanation with the stirring opening words:

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees … ”

He felt strongly that it demonstrated that these tasks were not only doable but a part of one’s lasting education. We viewed it a lame defense, feeling, if not giving voice to our opinions, that this sort of memorization had no real purpose outside of justifying the infliction of the same on the next generation. Dad was an educational perennialist; we were ardent progressivists.

Today most educational theorists and even most educators scoff at the notion of memorizing anything. (A few exceptions still stand — the multiplication tables, some orthography, a few lists here and there aided by mnemonic devices.) And this is probably yet another example of the educational pendulum having swung too far.

While memorization of the sort that existed in, say, the 19th Century and iconically in the English boarding schools of that century and even the prior one, extended far past what was reasonable, crowding out higher level thinking and critical analysis altogether; it is nevertheless true that it still has its purposes. Without knowing instantly the multiplication tables to the tens or twelves, upper-level math becomes an almost unsustainable chore or turns the student into a human-pocket calculator Borg. Memorizing certain lists of geological eras, presidents, cardinal sins and virtues can provide a wonderful shortcut for students who can assemble the rest of their learning around these conceptual landmarks. And, though this list is certainly not exhaustive, finally, memorizing certain literary selections — the Gettysburg Address, a myriad of wonderful poems, Hamlet’s soliloquy, etc.—can solidify their importance in our minds like almost nothing else. “The Highwayman” can hardly have held any deep meaning for my father as its content has little relevance to the upbringing of a Midwestern boy in the midst of the Great Depression, but you couldn’t tell that from his recitation of it. He loved that poem precisely because, I am convinced, he had memorized it.

Education is not just about cognitive mastery. It is also about affective appreciation of the culture, the pride, the thrill, the devotion to certain concepts and the literature in which they are contained. That Burns had to mount an initiative like “Learn the Address” to revivify The Gettysburg Address for this generation of students is a genuine critique of Western education, and one we should be unafraid to heed.