Why memorize a 426-line German poem? Is wounded pride reason enough? A year or so ago, I was speaking with a couple of students about poetry, and I proposed that my generation was the last to learn poems by heart. We do not expect our platitudes to be challenged, certainly not in the way my students challenged mine. With a sly smile, the first student promptly launched into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which he followed up with Neruda’s “Pido Silencio.” His friend then delivered the opening of the Iliad and, after a pause, repeated it in Greek. Pleased at having amazed me, they let me in on their secret: “We’re on the swim team, professor. You have to have something running through your head when you’re underwater.”

The truth is, not since Mr. Germak drilled his eighth graders on the prelude to...

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