In defence of learning by heart

Saturday, 30 March 2013 - 10:00am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
It may enrage some historians, but it's right that children should learn things by heart.

Four centuries ago, John Donne wrote a poem called Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward. Because of the call of pleasure or business, the author is riding to the west, away from Jesus, who will rise (there is a pun on "sun" and "son") in the east. He knows he should not be doing this, but he is "almost glad" to be facing the wrong way because the day of Christ's suffering is something he cannot bear to see.

Donne is conscious that Jesus sees him, though, from the Cross. He asks Jesus to punish him for turning his back on him, and so improve him that he may become the image of Christ, fit to look upon: "Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace, / That thou may'st know me, and I'll turn my face."

In honour of this poem, which I have always admired, I decided to mark its 400 years by riding westward on Good Friday yesterday. It was penitentially cold, and my horse, probably not out of piety, was anxious to turn back and gallop east, in the direction of his stable. I had to struggle to keep him going forward.

I reflected, on our anniversary journey, of how our civilisation has changed since Donne rode and wrote. On almost any measure - of Health, literacy, longevity, civil peace, parliamentary democracy, science, transport, the emancipation of women, prosperity, dentistry - things have got better. Only someone who knows very little about life in 1613 could say that he would rather have been alive then than now. I felt pleased that I would soon be back home in my warm house with all mod cons.

But there is a couplet in the poem which made me pause. Speaking of the narrative of the Passion, Donne says: "Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, / They are present yet unto my memory." He was writing in a culture when certain things of overwhelming importance were present in the memory of virtually every human being. We do not live in such a culture, and it shows.

Partly, of course, it is a matter of technology. Bertie Wooster had to ask Jeeves for information and the 99.999 per cent of people who lacked a valet for the purpose had to burnish their own memory. Now we can almost all google. This is the mental equivalent of the microwave, and very useful it is.

I notice, however, that the decline of memory also has an ideological component. If you look at the extraordinary rows that have broken out about Michael Gove's revised National Curriculum for history in England's schools, you will see what I mean.

What Mr Gove is proposing is a return to narrative. He wants children to know the history of this country in the right order, from the Stone Age to now. On this basis, they should also build knowledge of European history and world history. He is suspicious of the emphasis in the current history curriculum on learning "skills" (such as the evaluation of different sources) if these skills are divorced from the framework of chronology and wider acquaintance with history. He notices the stupefying boredom, complication and bad exams which this emphasis has produced. He thinks it is better to know the names and dates of our kings and queens than to be plunged into comparing the attitudes of different historians to an isolated historical problem.

All this is sensible, though no doubt parts of it are difficult to implement. Yet it has enraged some distinguished historians. They hate the idea that children might have to learn facts. They use the tired old references to Dickens's flinty-faced hardware merchant Mr Gradgrind ("Facts alone are what is wanted in life") that I have heard trotted out in every argument about Education for 30 or 40 years. They protest at "rote learning". They regard the notion that things need to be remembered as offensive.

They also hate the suggestion that some things are more worth learning than others. Richard Evans is the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Inexplicably, given his views, he was offered a knighthood by this Government and, equally inexplicably, given his views, he accepted it. He has berated his fellow professor, Simon Schama, who has helped Mr Gove, for speaking warmly of "a sense of shared memory". This is insulting, he thinks, to British people of different racial origins. It would be better to teach our Afro-Caribbean citizens the history of Benin and Oyo, for example.

Sir Richard suspects that we are threatened with "celebratory history". He cannot bear to think that pupils might be taught that good old British Wellington won the battle of Waterloo: the true victors were Blucher and his Germans. Professor David Cannadine, another prominent historian, thinks that Mr Gove's ideas are "blinkered" because they centre on the history of Britain. He mocks the idea that children aged five or six could "debate and discuss the concept of nation".

Professional historians are right to be chary of history as propaganda or as good, but untrue stories (for example, there is no evidence that Alfred burnt the cakes). But it is surely a fundamentally wrong attitude to education which says that children should not learn some things indelibly. It is essential that, from very early on, some things become literally unforgettable. Children's elders need to work out what those things are, and then make sure that they learn them, whether or not, at the time of learning, they fully understand.

This, after all, is how language itself works. A child starts to wield a word before he or she quite knows what it means. He imitates, at first; but from imitation, comprehension gradually flows. He hears a rhyme, and he likes its noise and enjoys repeating it, often before grasping fully what it is about. He hears a story, or a prayer, and bits of it stir him. The more of it he remembers, the more it will gradually mean to him.

It is also natural for knowledge to emanate outwards. One learns things first from one's Family, then from one's Teachers, then from the wider society and media. By analogy, this is the only sensible way to learn history. You will naturally want to learn first about the country in which you live. Contrary to Professor Cannadine, the concept of nation has a meaning for the very young, as anyone who travels abroad with small children will attest. Your own country is the most accessible model for understanding all countries, just as mastery of your own language helps you master other ones. It is a matter of working with the materials to hand.

If all this is denied, what happens is that the well-educated become very privileged and everyone else is cut off. The Evanses and Cannadines and other priests of knowledge can move freely in the world they have created for themselves, but the millions who have never really learnt anything important are held down in ignorance.

It is an extraordinary feature of the great religions that they are the only known structures of ideas and stories which deal with this problem. The teachings and life of Jesus were once known to all Europeans, and resonated just as much (possibly more) with the poor as with the mighty. John Donne knew that the memory on which he relied was one shared by all classes. Today, bogus egalitarianism has killed memory among uneducated people, and therefore increased social division. Experts attack "rote learning", but I prefer the phrase "learning by heart". Head and heart together is what we need, but our culture has separated them.
 


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