Let’s hear it for memorizing poetry, an excellent educational practice given up for no especially good reason. As Carol Muske-Dukes points out in today’s Times, “learning by heart” isn’t merely different from “learning by rote”: in some ways, it’s the opposite, because it internalizes the material rather than leaving it on the page as something to be learned about. As Muske-Dukes also points out, memorizing poems is natural, and people, especially children, in fact do it all the time. The question is whether they’re going to memorize some good poems along with the advertising jingles and sitcom theme songs.
And I wouldn’t stop with poetry: no reason eleventh-grade American history shouldn’t include learning the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence (omitting the catalogue of grievances). The benefit of learning by heart is more than having some good phrases ready to hand and some good literary models stored up inside you: learning to speak someone else’s words aloud in a way that conveys its meaning is among the best preparations for speaking well extempore.