May 10, 2012
In his eulogy of President Lincoln, Senator Charles Sumner quoted Lincoln’s own words about his Gettysburg Address. The president had said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Senator Sumner respectfully disagreed. He said, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it…”
This past February, in Anaheim, California, kindergarten students, in top hats and sporting fake beards, recited the Gettysburg Address by heart. They are only five and six years of age. Yet, they had managed to memorize one of the best speeches given in our nation’s history. Sumner was right. “The world…will never cease to remember.”
Throughout history, young people have been taught to memorize. Schoolboys in ancient Athens learned Homer by heart. Through memorization, they came to master the Greek language. They also learned about the virtues held in high regard by their culture. As a 4
th century schoolboy in North Africa, Saint Augustine memorized large portions of Virgil’s
Aeneid. Shakespeare, likewise, as a young grammar school boy, committed to memory large portions of Latin prose and poetry.
In more recent times, British students learned their great national ideals by memorizing the lines of the bard of Stratford. And, in colonial America, children, who used
The New England Primer as their first textbook, were made to memorize many a Biblical passage. In this way, they were not only taught English, but the virtues dear to the Puritans.
The role of memorization in education lasted across continents and national boundaries for centuries. But, since the 1940s, this technique of education began to decline. Two generations ago, it was still common even in this country for students to memorize Shakespeare, Wordsworth, the Declaration of Independence and Psalm 23. But this has changed.
Some educators look at memorization with disdain. They see it as a useless drudgery. They prefer a much more conceptual, story-based teaching method. Furthermore, the advances in technology have made obsolete the memorizing of phone numbers and addresses. Our phones and computers have their own memory. Once we may have had to scratch our heads as we tried to recall something. Now we need only push a button to retrieve the information from a memory bank.
Ever since the 1970s, we have witnessed the rapid disappearance of memorization in all branches of knowledge, including religion. How many young people today can name the Ten Commandments? How many can say what a sacrament is or give an adequate definition of the Eucharist as sacrifice and sacrament. There is a lot less memorization. And a lot less knowledge kept in the memory.
Mere knowledge of the facts of the faith is certainly not enough. Understanding those facts and seeing their connection to life and to society are essential. Today, it is fair to say that our younger generation of Catholics, as opposed to previous generations, cannot readily answer questions about what we believe. In no way is this a result of the generous service of our catechists. It is part of a larger pattern in many disciplines. But this does not exonerate us from addressing the issue in terms of religion and remedying it.
If a young person cannot say what he or she believes as a Catholic, what will be the result? At a time when Mass attendance has declined, could it be caused, in part, by the fact that many no longer know even the basics of the faith? How often Catholics will abandon the Church and choose to be part of another Christian religion when they meet members of that denomination who question our beliefs and they, as Catholics, have no answers!
Should we not be questioning ourselves on how best to hand on the faith in its entirety to the next generations? Can we improve our catechetical formation? Should memory still play a significant role?