We must be thinking in synchronicity today. Father Fessio also talked about the importance of memorization for the education of young people--or it may have been David Allen White the day before--on Hugh Hewitt’s show. (I guess my own memory is failing me!) In any case, the point made was that the mental exercise of memorization is dying in the schools because people have (to some extent rightly) begun to think of memorizing as unnecessary in an age where information is so readily accessible in a collective electronic memory, i.e., the Internet.
I remember my experiences in grammar school of committing lists to memory (not exactly Shakespeare or Milton, but it was something) and employing the methods Peter discussed below. A few of my girlfriends and I were involved in cheerleading and dance so we used to make up silly routines and songs out of the lists we had to remember for our tests. I still remember the list of prepositions from that routine we created . . . aboard, about, above, according to . . . Unfortunately, I was never able to put an equal amount of effort into remembering things like the times tables or the periodic table of elements, etc. Oh, well . . . I guess a thing still has to capture your imagination on some other level for you to want to know it. With my own kids and my niece, I am amazed by how well at even 3 and 4 years of age, they can remember the lyrics to songs that seem far beyond them if they associate those lyrics with motion--which seems to be the technique employed by the music departments in the pre-schools these days.
I think memorization accquired a bad name because so many teachers in grammar and high school (and sadly, even at the university) began to confuse the ability to memorize with the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Many students remember history classes, especially, as a kind of "Jeopardy-like" occupation. What were the causes of the Civil War? Here, memorize this list. Anyone can teach that kind of thing and, of course, it’s easier than trying to engage a classroom full of 14-17 year-olds in a conversation about equality. But, of course, it’s irrelevant and it’s boring. There’s really no difference, once you get to that point, between memorizing that kind of a list and memorizing a grocery list. The educational value is only in the exercise because if it does not capture your imagination you’re not likely to remember it anyway. That’s the real problem with the textbooks and the teaching of today, it seems to me. So few people seem like they’re really excited by their subjects. They fail to give their students a reason to remember it.