The nineteenth rule of the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, or Plan of Studies prescribes the regular recitation of memory lessons. These frequent practices of the memory in Jesuit schools have often been censured by modern writers. But renowned teachers as Dr. Arnold of Rugby, in fact, all educators that are not mere theorists, strongly insist on the necessity of these exercises.
Why should we exercise the memory of the pupils? The answer to this question in general is: because we must train the whole man. An old adage has it "Tantum scimus quantum memoria retinemus." [“We only know as much as we retain by memory.”] Boyhood is the best season for memory work, and also the time when that faculty should be thoroughly drilled. Professor Schnell, quoted by Father Kleutgen, says, "The school of the second period of childhood (10 to 14) is before everything else a school of memory, and during it more will and must be given to and absorbed by the memory than during any other period of life."Notice, they did not believe that elementary school was the school of memory, but what Neo-classical pundit call the "Logic Stage".
And Father Pachtler observes: "The lower the class the more is exercise of the memory to be insisted on." Again: "The mental power which is first developed is the memory. It is the strongest in boyhood and in the first years of youth, and decreases gradually with the development of the body, until, in old age, it is confined to the impressions produced in youth, and is remarkably weak in retaining impressions fixedly.** We must strike the iron whilst it is hot, and so make use of boyhood for the acquisition of those subjects which require the most memory, the learning of grammar and the languages which are the foundation of a college career."** New studies show that our brains are relatively plastic well into our middle ages. It can go well into old age. Read Aging With Grace about the Nun study showing how religious women seldom develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia or Brain Rules by John Medina for more on brain plasticity.
If it is asked what should be learned by heart, it is not easy to give an adequate answer. This much is certain that the more important rules of grammar must be committed to memory; then choice passages from the best authors in English and Latin, and a few from the Greek. Among the finest loci memoriales in Latin are the orations of Livy, v. g. that of Hannibal to his soldiers, the exordia of the orations of Cicero, striking passages from Virgil, some odes of Horace, the account of the "four ages" from Ovid's Metamorphoses, etc. In Greek it will be well to have the exordia of the Odyssey and Iliad learned by heart; Greek gnomes are also chrousa epê, truly "golden words"; they may serve to fix easily certain important rules of syntax in the mind of the pupils. At the same time, they well illustrate — as in fact the adages and proverbs of every nation — the most common ethical and every day life principles.Notice that difficult memory work is not associated exclusively with the elementary school years – the Sayers “grammar stage” but with what we would consider middle school age. One of my favorite books on Classical Education, Trivium Mastery by Diane Lockman, makes the same assertions. She demystifies the goals of a Classical Education and what is really required for a great Classical Education.
It is not necessary the work be English. The only requirement is the selections should be worth remembering, be it from the ethical, aesthetical, poetical, or historical point of view. The most beautiful and most elevating thoughts from the world's literature, treasured up in the memory, will also afford considerable help for the writing of essays.
A few suggestions may be added about the manner of learning by heart. Passages from good authors are to be known word for word. The same will ordinarily apply to the rules of grammar; the precepts of rhetoric and of poetry may either be gotten in the same way, or the sense simply may be exacted. The matter which is to be committed to memory should be understood.In The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, deep practice is defined by error-focused, repetition, going over a short or small amount to mastery. Once a small amount is mastered, more is added, stopping at errors, correcting the errors right away, until mastered. Learn a small amount, correct errors, master it, repeat adding a small amount each time.
It will be most useful to instruct the pupils how to memorize. They should not try to learn the lesson as one whole, but rather they should memorize one or two lines at a time, a sentence, or a clause; then the second sentence or line of poetry. After two are well known they should be repeated together. Then a third sentence is learned and again united with those learned previously. The principle of the old Romans: Divide et impera, [divide and rule] will here be applied. These suggestions may appear minute, and it may be objected that each individual has a way of his own which is just right for him. However, a little questioning of pupils will show that their method of memorizing is very frequently erroneous, and that instruction on such matters will be far from amiss.
One great mistake of students is to try to learn by heart when their minds are bothered and distracted. Memory work is best done when body and mind are quiet; impressions then made are deeper and will last. This is the fundamental secret of the various much vaunted systems of memory which have been paraded about in different times. Concentrate the mind, is their motto, and then you will memorize with ease and tenaciously. Very few people, boys or not, have the self-control to concentrate their minds when they are disturbed. This is one of the reasons why it is best to learn by heart in the early morning, before the thoughts and feelings of a new day crowd upon one. Father Sacchini recommends the pupil to go over his task when walking or alone, the same principle, as is clear, being involved.
When should the lessons be recited? By looking into the Ratio, in the second rule for the several classes, we find that the beginning of both sessions is set aside for the recitation of memory lessons. On Saturday the lessons of the whole week are to be repeated. Father Sacchini speaks of monthly and yearly repetitions by heart. He adds an exhortation to the professor never to omit the recitation of memory lessons, and to exact them to the letter. It is hardly possible, in this case, to hear everything from everybody, so the professor may call on a few only, or ask but a part from each. It is very useful to have, say a whole exordium, or an entire description, thus repeated. Another such recitation is held when a whole speech or book has been seen. This public recitation is to take place from the platform; it might be made an item in the entertainments given one another by the different classes. It is incomparably more advantageous to the pupil to deliver thus by heart and declaim with the pomp and ceremony of public elocution a masterpiece of literature which he has been taught through and through, than to fit gestures and modulate his voice to some half-understood and often inferior composition which he has not had the time, nor the patience, nor the ability to make his own.This is similar to the Suzuki graduation from one level to the next. A Suzuki student does a public performance of all the music they have memorized from the beginning to the end of the book. They may also include previously memorized pieces.
It seems very important that the pupils should be directed to be careful to give their memory lessons according to the sense and feeling; in reciting poetry attention is to be paid to the quantities and, above all, to the caesuras; then the lines will sound like music. This is unquestionably the surest way of making good speakers, and is far superior as an elocutionary practice to any weekly or less frequent class of elocution. It is also for this reason of the utmost importance that the professor should read the authors well, and see that the pupils read according to the sense of the passage.Lastly, Father Schwickerath emphasizes the importance of learning in context and with understanding, not the mere ability to recite accurately. That is a fault I find with programs like Classical Conversations. Memorizing for memorizing sake is not a good use of time. We should choose carefully what we have children memorize rather than turning into Schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind from Dicken's Hard Times.