What have you ever learned by heart and was it worth it?

I came across a recent blog post lamenting the loss of rote learning of the Catechism in the Episcopalian Church. It seemed a fairly nostalgic piece but It got me thinking: how good was rote learning? What was the point? And so I made a quick mental list of the things I can remember remembering by heart.

  • Book 4 of Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek
  • Mark’s Gospel in Greek
  • Aristophanes’ The Frogs
  • Various Shakespeare speeches
  • Keats’ Ode to Autumn
  • The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (highlights)
  • Sketches by Monty Python (by mistake)
  • the lyrics of scores of pop songs, but never the second verse
  • various orders of worship, Christian and Buddhist
  • some Psalms

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Most of these I’ve forgotten (The Frogs, for instance). Some I can’t forget (Python is a kind of brain curse). I won a prize for Keats and passed a Greek exam wih Xenophon. Some I learnt deliberately, others I just memorised without noticing – like plays I performed in , Richard II, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance and so on.

These days kids learn things by heart because they want to. Last week I asked my daughter’s friends if they could say how many chapters there are in all seven volumes of Harry Potter. I thought that would stump them. Instead they worked it out, then recited the chapter names. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the first sentence of each chapter. You could tell they were winging it a bit, but on the whole it was pretty impressive.

The last chapter of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 has haunted me since I read it. The hero, Montag, whose job has been to burn books, is on the run when he comes across a small group of outlaws who are preserving the culture through this new Dark Age. How do they do it? They have memorised small chunks of literature. Montag is told there are many such people and when they get together a whole book will coalesce in the retelling.

Me, I feel this underestimates the value of a purely oral culture, at the same time as praising a partially oral culture. But all the same, it’s a poignant scene.

So here’s my question:

what have you learnt by heart, and do you feel it has been ‘worthwhile’ (as defined by you)?

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