By Amy Barr
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are each over 15,000 lines of skillfully crafted poetry. In them, Homer introduced advanced literary techniques such as foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and metaphor, all while drawing us quickly into the plot with adventure and excitement. The artistry of these poems would make them exceptional even if they were written on a computer today, but they were composed almost 3,000 years ago, before the Greeks had built the Parthenon or even finalized their alphabet. Homer did what came naturally to ancient poets: he composed and performed these poems from memory.
In many educational circles, the venerable art of memorization is out of style. Modern technology makes data cheap and easy, so why memorize when you can just hop online to find what you need? Students complain that rote memorization makes learning dull. Calculators, fact charts, and search engines have taken the place of flashcards.
Ask any expert in any field, and he will confirm that memorization is unavoidable. You can’t excel unless you’ve assembled the factual building blocks into a good foundation. Psalm 119:11 warns us to build such a foundation of awareness about God: “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Stylish or not, memorization is essential for those wanting to move beyond amateur rank and toward maturity and excellence.
Starting with Homer, Greek and Roman poets began every writing project by invoking the muses and asking for a bit of help doing their job. Poets weren’t just eager for a spark of creativity. They thought the muses, and their mom Mnemosyne, ought to be on hand to help anybody who relied on memorization. Poets, historians, writers, actors, singers, and musicians had only their wits to get the job done. They called on the muses to help them memorize things so frequently that the term musician comes directly from the word muse while Mnemosyne is where we get the word mnemonic device, meaning a memory aid.
Few of us have the passion to capably memorize 30,000 lines of poetry, but helping our kids become great future musicians, actors, doctors, lawyers, linguists, or scientists means we need to offer them a few pointers from the Classical world to aid memorization and to avoid tedium and frustration. Here are three ways to resurrect the fine art of memorization and help you get started:
1. Use all five senses.
I’m not an advocate of any approach that has you mindlessly chanting factoids all day. Long spells of verbal repetition will not teach you much except for how to make an hour boring while your dog or cat looks at you strangely. The biggest problem with chanting your way to memorization is that it is mindless. If possible, you must engage your brain fully. Come up with ways to use your eyes, ears, hands, and voice to master the material, preferably in a way that best suits your learning style.
It is important to try a variety of ways to master new material if your first approach doesn’t seem to be working for you. Just as you wouldn’t lift weights with only one arm, why study only one way? Get creative: read, write, draw, doodle, pronounce, and even act out your data to be memorized. Some create a pictorial system for flashcards, drawing a doodle for each fact to help them remember the concept visually. Others profit from listening to the sound files of the material. Some post charts in a favorite spot where they can look at them while doing otherwise dull activities such as washing dishes or brushing teeth. Still others enlist a study buddy to help with the flashcards on a regular basis, or they find a song and set the facts to music. Dedicated students use all of these methods.
2. Work smarter, not longer.
Times when you sit for extended periods trying to cram knowledge into your brain, otherwise known as cram sessions, don’t work. This rule applies to learning any complex body of knowledge. Give your brain a fighting chance by breaking up study sessions into short periods of 20 to 40 minutes each. Even on your days off, do 15 minutes of review by using your homemade flashcards or reading over material before you go to bed. Just do something every day.
If you leave the material untouched for two or three consecutive days, you will have to work twice as hard for two more days to recover. People who play instruments are already familiar with this problem, and they’ll be the first to tell you the benefits of daily practice.
3. Don’t forget to sleep.
Learning things such as Latin, chemistry, a minuet, math formulas, or the periodic table require you to rewire your brain a bit. You are setting up new patterns in your mind, so the construction process can take a while. Daily study, alternating with other normal activities and a full night’s sleep, is the best stress-free way to soak up data. Sleep is a fabulous study aid—as long as you are not sleeping through the block of time you scheduled for learning each day.
Spend about 12 minutes on new material right before you go to sleep every night. Your brain will work on it all night while you get some quality snoozing done. First thing in the morning, zoom through your data once more, and then make yourself write out or recite the information from memory. You’ll be impressed with your improvement overnight.
It is a gift to learn how to memorize things without staying up all night, getting stressed, or—perhaps worse—succumbing to boredom. Setting up effective memorization habits early will make difficult topics more manageable your whole life long and, who knows, maybe you will even compose a 15,000-line poem in your spare time.
Amy Barr is a home school mother of three and a full-time instructor of other home educated students as co-founder of The Lukeion Project, www.lukeion.org. As an archaeologist, she spent more than a decade excavating sites throughout the Mediterranean and teaching Classics at the college level. Now she and her husband, Regan Barr, offer their expertise through live online workshops and college preparatory high school courses about the Classical world, Latin, and Greek. The two of them lead annual family tours to the Mediterranean and invite you to join them for a tour.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.