I've recently begun a project to memorize the mishna. The technique I am using is surprisingly effective.
This came as a result of my feeling nostalgic for the days when the Oral Torah was truly oral. This makes me curious about the actual process of transmitting the mishna to students. My dilemma is this: in order to memorize the mishna you'd need to have someone who already has the text memorized teach it to you mishna by mishna. And not only this but you need to hear from the mouth of this teacher for a considerable number of years before you actually receive the entire six orders. You need to be a devoted student of a teacher for many, many years to get the whole text.
Presumably then, the text would have to be reviewed constantly in order to keep it in memory, and moreover because not all students come at the same time, different sections would need to be taught concurrently.
Thus I'm wondering how widespread actually were those who actually had the entire six tractates memorized. I am aware that each academy had those specifically designated for memorizing the mishna. But the memorization had to extend beyond these people only for the fact that the mishna's rulings would otherwise not have been retained by the nation at large.
Does anyone have an idea about what it literally took to get this body of knowledge down the generations, in more than the vague "Moshe kibel torah misinai, umesorah leyehoshua, etc." And then the early mishnayot which came from Moshe himself were probably much more numerous than the reduced form we have today (I once heard Rebi Hakadosh had 900 orders of mishna he reduced to six)