Children Find Utility and Enjoyment in Exercising Their Memories

Terrence Moore

August 1, 2003

While learning the three R’s elementary students should put their memories to work. Too often today teachers are reluctant to have students memorize passages of literature or multiplication tables or the facts of history. Whenever the memory is mentioned in most education circles, the adjective “mere” precedes it, as though “mere memorization” was somehow something to be ashamed of. Classical educators, however, treat the memory as a fundamental faculty of the human mind and therefore train it.

There is no moment in the day when human beings do not use their memories. We get to work by following the same path we took the day before. We resume the projects we left off without having to relearn the whole process from the beginning. Whenever a new challenge confronts us, we search our “memory bank” to see whether we have encountered something similar in the past. At dinner, we rehearse the events of the day with our families. In the company of old friends, we relive the moments of our youth. In short, the memory is not only useful to our work but a source of great pleasure in our leisure. On the other hand, there is hardly a more miserable creature on earth than an amnesiac: someone who has lost his memory and does not even know who he is.

The child’s memory is particularly strong. The more the child’s mind takes in and the more it stores, the faster the child can catch up with what he has to know to live in the world. Children learn their ABC’s and their numbers by saying them again and again. They often astonish adults by reminding us of the promises we made yesterday and hoped they would forget. They readily see that the memory is both a tool and a weapon. It is also a source of enjoyment. I have seen ten-year-old girls in a French-speaking country singing a Mariah Carey song in a language they could hardly speak.

So the question is not whether children should be made to use their memories. They do so naturally. The question is what they should exercise their memories on. The reasons for memorizing the multiplication tables, the states of America, and grammar rules should be obvious enough. We are daily called upon to make use of such facts on the spot, without having time to look them up. Why should children memorize poetry? The simple answer is that poetry speaks directly to the soul. By memorizing certain great poems, we keep them as possessions for all time. It is true that a twelve-year-old might not understand perfectly all the themes canvassed in Kipling’s “If.” Yet he will be able to call upon this poem for solace and for inspiration whenever he does confront the challenges of the world. I can think of no better preparation for the long, arduous march into adulthood.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can take one heap of all your winnings,
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow with the Ashbrook Center. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.