Have you attended one of our Grammar School Recitations? What’s so special about recitation, and why do we emphasize this seemingly outdated educational method? Caldwell Academy Academic Dean Leslie Liebmann explains why recitation is such an important part of classical education and why it is a joy to experience first-hand.
Last May, I sat in the McDonald Pavillion and listened to my fifth-grade grandson’s class as it recited Patrick Henry’s famous speech. I’ve been listening to Caldwell fifth-grade students recite this speech for more than 20 years, but it never gets old and I never fail to tear up while they are reciting it. Why? What’s so special about recitation, and why do we emphasize this seemingly outdated educational method?
In the Foreward to Something They Will Not Forget by Josh Gibbs, professor Karen Swallow Prior wrote, “...the practices of catechesis, recitation, and memorization help turn the information offered by a teacher or textbook into formation of the student.” Classical education does not aim primarily to pass on knowledge. Instead, it aims to make students into a certain kind of person. Classical Christian education aims to form students into the people God longs for them to be, people who bring glory to Him. This is a lofty and difficult goal. We should not be surprised when the process is a bit painful.
The younger the student, though, the less painful the process. This is why Dorothy Sayers in her famous essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” suggests the Grammar (elementary school) stage should be filled with learning things “by heart.” She calls this memorization of diverse facts, texts, chants, and songs “a gathering together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium.” She suggests “anything and everything which can usefully be committed to memory should be memorized at this period.”
I know from experience this works. When I was teaching, I learned there were certain points in the curriculum where the students who had been at Caldwell for grammar school would burst into song or chant. Mention, for example, Henry VIII’s wives and you will get an immediate and very loud chorus of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” This is shocking the first few times it happens, but it’s also delightful because it provides a Rhetoric School teacher with a familiar foundation on which to build.
The impact of memorization and recitation reaches beyond Caldwell and the study of the Trivium, however. A few years ago, a former student told me a great story about a college ministry experience. She and several other Caldwell graduates were part of the Reformed University Fellowship group at their school. One evening the speaker made a point about how humans are not only incapable of keeping the Ten Commandments, but we don’t even know for sure what they are. To demonstrate his point he asked, “Can any of you list all 10 of the commandments?” One of our bold graduates raised her hand. The surprised speaker invited her to do it. She rose and sang, with the help of her fellow Caldwell graduates, “The Perfect Ten
” for the entire group, much to the delight of everyone in attendance. Knowing the Ten Commandments still doesn’t mean we can keep them. At Caldwell, we learn about the gospel that frees us from the law as well.
In our community, we tend to associate “recitation" with Grammar-aged children standing in neat rows wearing crisp, clean official uniforms, but this method should not be limited to use in grades K-5. Though it may be more difficult for tweens and teens to memorize and recite, it is still a great deal easier for these young minds than it is for adults. Dialectic and Rhetoric students continue to develop their “by heart” repertoire. This is important because, as Carolyn Weber says in Surprised By Oxford, “...what you memorize by heart, you take to heart… Once you really absorb the words, the words become your own. Then, and only then, can you mull them over on your tongue, appreciating them as you would a good wine, enjoying them as the company of a good friend.”
We are careful about what we ask our students to commit to memory. It is our desire for their minds to be filled with words that are good, true, and beautiful. Scripture, poetry, classic prose and courageous, inspiring speeches are all valuable material for our students to have stored away for the hard times they will inevitably face in life. Sometimes older students are assigned specific memory work, but there are other ways memorization and recitation are worked into the curriculum as well. Young people who read aloud the same passage of scripture every day before the start of class for a quarter find that they have memorized it by the end of a few weeks. Catechisms used at the start of class outline the basics of an entire course. Using a series of questions and answers, students can memorize the most important passages and dates pertinent to the period they are studying.
Some may point out that this seems unnecessary in today’s world. We live in the information age, after all. We do not need to memorize things because almost anything you can think of is only a few clicks away. While information IS extremely accessible, looking something up on the internet is NOT the same as hiding it in your heart. There is, of course, the possibility that something will happen and the internet will go down. What will we do then?
The more important thing, however, is what these true, good, and beautiful things do within us when they become a part of who we are. If you are feeling outnumbered, facing a seemingly unwinnable battle, whether literal or figurative, how much might it be worth to have King Henry V’s words to draw upon, “If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor. God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more…” When you are having a PET scan or an MRI, you cannot use google, but you can access the scripture you have in your heart and repeat to yourself, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…” And it will, because He promised.
Next time I have the privilege of listening to our fifth-grade students recite the Patrick Henry speech, I know I will get emotional. The tears come, I think because I know that the beauty, courage, and spirit of Henry’s words have become a part of these young humans. These words will be with them always, and I am thankful. I am thankful to have been a part of a school like Caldwell. I am thankful that my children and grandchildren have many examples of truth, goodness, and beauty stored away because these treasures are helping to form their character and will help them as they face all the hard things life will bring.Watch
a Caldwell Academy Grammar School Recitation from March 23, 2022.