Kids and the Power of the Spoken Word

From a Wall Street Journal story by Mark Bauerlein and David Mikics headlined “Kids and the Power of the Spoken Word”:

New educational standards in Georgia and Arkansas include modest-sounding requirements that are in fact revolutionary.

In Georgia students will be required to build “background knowledge” by reciting all or part of significant poems and speeches. The Arkansas plan calls for students to recite a passage from a well-known poem, play or speech. That’s it: an old-fashioned demand that students memorize the Gettysburg Address or Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” or Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and recite it to an audience.

Most parents would probably call this a worthy exercise, fostering the courage to speak in public and firing the adolescent imagination. Who could object to lodging memorable words in teenage heads otherwise packed with TikTok videos?

English teachers, that’s who. Modern educators view memorization as empty repetition, mechanical and prescriptive rather than creative or thoughtful. Reciting texts from memory, they say, merely drops information into students’ minds. It’s rote learning instead of critical analysis.

That’s wrong. Recitation allows students to experience a text as a living thing, ready to be taken up by a new generation. Committing a poem or speech to memory means stepping into the author’s shoes and pondering what he meant. Deciding which words to stress when reciting means thinking about what those words mean. This is why public speaking was once a requirement at many colleges and universities.

In our age of social media and artificial intelligence, the practice of recitation has never been more needed. Memorizing classic words reminds us that they are alive.

Arkansas and Georgia have something even stronger than pedagogical theory to justify the new—or, rather, old—standards. Watch the faces of parents as they listen to their children urging us all toward what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” or saying with Robert Frost, “I have been one acquainted with the night,” or with Shakespeare, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

When young reciters return to their seats, they know they have made ageless words their own. What parents and students feel at that moment transcends a good grade. For a few minutes, striving teens become King, Frost or Shakespeare.

“Every man is an orator,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. “The eloquence of one stimulates all the rest . . . to a degree that makes them good receivers and conductors.” Reciting classic lines brings past eloquence into the present, turning us into receivers and conductors. When we weigh the words of influential men and women and realize they are still useful, we all benefit. Georgia and Arkansas understand this. Let’s hope many more states follow their lead.

Mark Bauerlein, an emeritus professor of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, worked on the standards in Georgia and Arkansas. David Mikics is president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers and a professor of English at the University of Houston.

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