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Oration and recitation, once staples of the American school system, have largely been phased out. Rhetoric programs at universities have narrowed, merged with communications departments, or been eliminated altogether.

“We don’t have that kind of oral culture anymore,” said Prof. James Engell, author of “The Committed Word: Literature and Public Values,” who teaches a rhetoric course at Harvard. “We are in a culture that devalues our sense of memory.” Back when John Quincy Adams was teaching it, Mr. Engell said, “rhetoric was an umbrella where you got moral philosophy, the development of literary taste, intellectual prose, aesthetic appreciation, memorization and oral presentation. The ultimate object of this was what the Greeks called phronesis, or practical wisdom.”

Prof. Catherine Robson of the University of California at Davis said there also was “an older heritage in American education where recitation was the standard pedagogical mode.”

“Everything was memorized, not just poetry,” said Ms. Robson, author of the forthcoming “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.” “Knowing your lesson. The word recitation means repeating any lesson.” (She warns against too much nostalgia for the memory-happy past: “An illusion of community was created because tremendous numbers of people learned exactly the same texts.”)


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