Children no longer memorise poems. This is odd. Children, after all, are seemingly purpose-built for memorisation. Their ability to acquire languages, memorise stories, and reel off vast reams of data is well attested. The classical education trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric reflects this. The grammar phase (mapping onto what we’d roughly think of as the primary school years) is given over almost entirely to rote learning.
Of course, you don’t have to be an advocate of the classical education model to see children memorise. You just need to be paying attention. No doubt there’s an unpoetic evolutionary-biological account of this available. The long childhood of Homo sapiens requires a high-trust, high-memory mind because remembering data and trusting your parents was a survival advantage on the savannah. Or something like that.
We no longer fill these high-trust, high-memory minds with poetry.
There are noble exceptions. One is the impressive Poetry Out Loud program in the US, in which children memorise and recite poems in a national competition. Requirements include learning at least one poem written before the twentieth century—a wonderful vaccine against the narcissism of the now. The success of the program points to an otherwise unmet need.
This essay appeared in Quadrant‘s July-August edition.
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The Poetry Out Loud movement is perhaps a harbinger of the future. But at this moment it stands as the exception to the rule. We used to teach children poetry. Now we don’t. Why not?
It’s not, so far as I am aware, the result of a pedagogical discovery about children’s abilities. The last hundred years have seen an explosion of research into education. Never before in human history have as many people dedicated as much time to the scientific study of pedagogy. And yet that enterprise has not challenged the basic observation that children can memorise a lot of data. They can. It’s just not something we require of them any longer. A superpower we leave unexploited.
Memorising poetry may appear to us an elite interest, unbecoming for an egalitarian age. But here we are the historical outlier. Memorisation of poetry and sacred texts was, historically, anything but elite. On the contrary, poetry memorisation was a feature of education throughout society. It was at the point of logic, rhetoric and reading that educated elites distinguished themselves from the masses. Memorised poems were for everyone. This is true of almost all ancient societies. It is still true of major religious traditions today. And it was true in Western culture until only very recently. My own grandmother—the wife of a market gardener, and who left formal education after primary school to work as a domestic help, knew vastly more poetry by heart than I do.
It’s worth letting this sink in for a moment. I have nineteen years of full-time education, in reasonably well-recognised institutions, including a degree in English literature and a Humanities PhD, and I was never required or even encouraged to commit a single poem to memory. My grandmother, with her eight years of bush-school education, was a comparative walking compendium of English verse. She learned poems; I learned research skills. I was sent into the world knowing how to find information should I ever require it. She was sent out with a head full of English verse, Australian bush poetry and Christian scripture by which she was expected to make sense of her world. Those poems I do know (and they are so few I’d be embarrassed to say here how many) I have learned off my own bat, and have learned them when the learning was uphill. That is, after I was a child.
Again, why is this?
No doubt the reasons are legion. The massive rise in literacy (a good thing) means that we just don’t need to carry as much in our heads as we once did. A GPS can do what the indigenous Australian songlines once did in mapping the landscape. The entire text of the Iliad is already available to you via the phone in your pocket. Why keep any of it in your head?
Christians are now encouraged to read their Bibles. Christians reading their Bibles is a grand project, and one that makes my Protestant heart leap for joy. But it’s worth remembering that for most of our history, scripture was heard, not read. The ability to read the Bible for yourself is a technological and cultural treasure; it is not a spiritual necessity. It is, indeed, historically speaking, an odd way to access the text. Scripture was built, not so much for reading, but for hearing. For being committed to memory.
The rise of universal, secular education is another factor. Memorisation continues in major religious traditions such as Islam and Judaism (but not, sadly, mainstream Christianity). And secular education, with an increasing focus on STEM subjects, leaves memorisation to the religions.
When poetry is taught, it is often taught with students encouraged to wear the ideological equivalent of a Hazchem suit. Students are taught the poem is a thing to be analysed for its “meaning”, language that does for poetry what the word intercourse does for love-making. Worse, they are taught poems are a power-play, privileging this and marginalising that. The student’s job then becomes one of dismantling a live bomb of ideological impurity before it explodes in the room, taking fellow students down with them. Who in their right mind would memorise such a thing?
The modern self—Charles Taylor’s post-romantic expressive individual, making their way through the age of authenticity—no doubt has a mild allergic reaction to any form of rote learning. It feels deeply inauthentic to take the words of another and commit them to heart. It is paramount to letting someone else write your life script for you, which is a Very Bad Thing. If the project of the modern self is to find your unique, inner self and then express that self to the world, memorising the poems of another self is no help at all.
There are no doubt other relevant factors to the demise of poetry memorisation. But I want to propose one factor which is both significant and (I believe) illuminating. Poetry is only passed on in self-confident traditions. When a community or tradition ceases to believe in its own value, the practice of memorising poetry dies with it.
Homer’s epic was committed to the minds of children because of an unselfconscious confidence in the value of Greek culture. The Hebrew Psalms were learned by a people who thought the spirituality they contained, and the God to whom they pointed, was precious beyond measure. The songlines of indigenous Australians were passed on for millennia, preserving the stories of a proud people, the world’s oldest continuous culture.
The minds of children are a sacred trust. They combine two potent capacities at once: maximum ability to ingest information alongside minimal capacity to assess critically what is being ingested. To put anything into the mind of a child is to make a decision about their mind for them. It is to bypass their consent and form them into a culture and a moral stance they did not choose. To commit anything to a child’s memory is to shape profoundly the way they will see the world. And in this they have no choice.
The very phrase is evocative: we learn a poem “by heart”. We take it to the core of our being. We invite it, not simply to become a thing we assess in the world, but something by which we assess everything else in the world. To ask a child to commit a poem to memory is to mark them for life. It is to make a decision for them about their lives. Who is equal to such a task?
If you are confident that Greek culture, or Hebrew spirituality, or Aboriginal songlines are an objective good, this process is uncomplicated. But what if your confidence in your traditions, your literature and your religious sentiments has collapsed? Then the sacred trust of putting poems in a child’s head and heart becomes fraught. We lose confidence in teaching children what to think; we resort to teaching them how to think.
This, of course, is a fantasy. There are all sorts of things—our families, our language, our manners, our education systems—into which we enrol our children without their consent. And the very decision to focus on how to think over what to think is itself a culturally, historically and traditionally determined decision. When we teach children that they have to decide for themselves what to believe, that following their dreams is what matters, that all poetry is political, we are merely catechising them into late modernity. But we feel our hands are clean, because we did not involve ourselves in the iffy process of “putting things in their heads”.
Once the moment for memorisation is gone, it is gone forever. We decided for them that they will go through life without poetry in their heads. It was not neutral. It was a decision we made for them. But it is a decision we keep on making.
Imagine a scenario in which the state suddenly decided we were squandering the memorisation power of young minds. Imagine that a decree went out that memorised poems should be put back into the curriculum forthwith. Pedagogically, this would be sound. Historically, it would put us back into the mainstream of what children have been taught for millennia. But imagine the ruckus that would follow. Which poems? If The Iliad, then why that poem, and not another? If Christian or Jewish poems, well, who on earth do we think we are? Would poems safely harvested from the post-Enlightenment era relieve the tension? Byron, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot? Dead White Males all of them. The process of choosing which poems to commit to heart would be so angst-ridden, so ideologically fraught, we’d abandon the whole thing quicker than you could say, “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky …”
Having said all that, I believe there is a non-zero chance memorised poetry will face a resurgence in the near future. My thesis is that confident traditions teach poetry to their children. A renewed confidence should, if my thesis stands, lead to a rebirth of poetry memorisation.
If modern Western secularism continues to take a quasi-religious shape, with axioms and dogmas, liturgical rites and blasphemy laws, then memorised poetry will return. Whatever else the Western progressive consensus is, it is self-confident. It is increasingly exhibiting the kind of confidence in its own traditions and perspectives that it might well take the inevitable next step. If the post-sexual-revolution culture settles, it will gladly and unflinchingly write poems and commit those poems to the minds of its children. Every self-assured culture does. The phenomenon of drag queen story-time at local libraries can be thus decoded. It is an assertion that our current configuration of the sexual revolution is axiomatic, its conclusions so self-evident as to be pre-critical, and therefore to be given to children at the time their minds are maximally retentive and minimally critical. That which we are prepared to teach our children before they can consent is that which we truly believe. The modern sexual revolutionaries, almost alone in the West, have this level of self-belief. They will write the poems and their children will commit them to memory. They will know them by heart.
Rory Shiner is the senior pastor of Providence City Church in Perth. His PhD (Macquarie University) was on the Sydney archbishop Donald Robinson. His next book is a newcomer’s guide to the Christian faith, based on the Apostles’ Creed