The downfall of education did not begin with the iPhone or the television; it began with the invention of writing.
While that statement may be a bit dramatic, it’s true that for the majority of Western civilization, memorizing poetry, among other forms of rhetoric, was a critical component of a young scholar’s education. Today, such a practice is nowhere to be seen in the majority of American classrooms. Except, that is, in the classrooms of Hillsdale professors.
“Ancient peoples were preliterate cultures,”Assistant Professor of Education Benjamin Beier said. “If you wished to pass on important things, you had to remember them.”
Beier first discovered the value of memorizing poetry at the University of Kansas, in which he memorized poetry through a unique method.
“Somebody would speak it, and without the mediation of the text, you would have to begin responding in chorus, and eventually, over time, let it become your own,” Beier said.
Associate Professor of English Dwight Lindley experienced a similar love for poetry in his young adulthood. He said although his father would recite memorized poetry to him as a child, he had no interest in memorizing poetry himself until he read a Socratic dialogue by Plato in college.
“At the end of the “Phaedrus,” he actually criticizes books because he says that things you really know, you know inside yourself,” Lindley said. “You don’t need to have them on paper. If you have them on paper, do you really have them?”
According to both Lindley and Beier, having access to information via the internet or a large library is practical, but not as fulfilling as having that information memorized.
“If poems provide insight into the world and are delightful music, then to memorize is to carry those insights within yourself, in a way very distinct from having a book on your shelf,” Beier said. “There’s something about it that gives delight as well as instruction.”
Since discovering the value of memorizing poetry, Lindley has committed to memory several poems, as well as Bible verses and Biblical poetry.
“I made a resolution that I wanted to build up a body of more beautiful things in me, not just whatever rock songs I happened to listen to a lot and therefore memorized.”
Sophomore Anna Swartz, one of Lindley’s students, started memorizing poetry in the 8th grade at her classical school.
“Having the poems in your mind is helpful because you don’t have to look them up,” Swartz said. “They’re already there. When you’re trying to make a comment in class, it’s cool to be able to reference these poems because they’ve already been in your mind.”
Though she often memorizes poetry to fulfill class requirements, she finds beauty in the art itself and believes it makes her a better writer.
“I’m a firm believer that there aren’t any original ideas,” Swartz said. “All ideas that you have are influenced by the teachers you’ve had and the things that you’ve read. It’s cool to be able to engage with writers who have gone before you and take those bits of knowledge and be able to immediately apply them to your own thoughts.”
According to Lindley, much of contemporary literature suffers due to the lack of poetry memorization in modern education.
“The language in a lot of books and speeches of our day is utterly impoverished because those men and women have not been well educated,” Lindley said. “They have not filled their souls with beautiful things. Whereas, Abraham Lincoln did. His sentences had such a pleasing rhythm to them because he had ingested the poetry of the King James Bible and Shakespeare.”
Above all, Lindley said, students should memorize poetry because it can help them beyond their time at Hillsdale.
“You want to live a beautiful life. You want to build up your soul so that you can carry it forth into whatever life you live after this, which will be something you won’t really predict.”