Learning by Heart

It should be mentioned at the beginning that in Britain at least, the concept of education has been bedevilled by a false etymology. Education is thought to come from the Latin prefix e- meaning ‘out’ and the verb ducere, ‘to lead’. So it is supposed that the desire for knowledge is inherent in the child, and needs only to be ‘led out’. Give children the facilities, said Bertrand Russell, following Morris and others, and they will learn all they need spontaneously. They will learn to read naturally, because they are surrounded by writings, and will be curious to know what these say. It is further assumed that the process must be made agreeable, interesting, and amusing. If it is not, that is a failure to provide “what the child needs”. This is not borne out by experience. Westerners in the Far East, for instance, surrounded by Chinese writings, very rarely attempted to learn the characters; they used to tell each other that it was impossible, though the stupidest Japanese boy learnt them.

In any case, ‘education’ does not come from ‘e- ducere’; the abstract noun from ‘educere’ is ‘eduction’ meaning indeed ‘leading out’. ‘Education’ comes from the Latin ‘educare’ meaning to train, to educate. In this true sense, education can be compared to training one’s own body and mind. One whose body is not well because of a wrong life-style, has to become well by training first the body. He loves the body and wants to make it well, but the methods used are not always kindly, not always what the body finds agreeable, interesting, or amusing. The training methods, of course, should be accredited, and known to produce desirable results. It may mean getting up earlier and going for a run or having cold baths to improve the skin and get the adaptive functions going well. Cutting out some of the food and drink of the so-called Happy Eaters. The body will not like it for quite a time. True love is to persist with it, and not say, “Oh, my body doesn’t like this”. The true love for the body is not always in kindly actions. Force may have to be used, until after about three months the first results, in the form of a new vitality, begin to appear. Then the body recognizes that the harshness was in fact love.

It is the same with most children. If the occasional seemingly harsh methods are not applied, the children when they grow older will not forgive the parents for failing to bring them up in a disciplined way, so that they could control themselves. The children will think, and even say. “You knew: I did not know. Why didn’t you force me to learn these things? You knew they would be for my ultimate good; you knew they would not be forever. You should have applied them. Now I cannot control myself, and I have no independence.”

Take a definite example. Seventy years ago, children were made to learn long lists of dates: Agincourt 1415, Magna Carta 1215. These are sometimes sarcastically given as typical examples of irrelevancy to modern life. I can remember being able to reel off the dates of the kings and queens of England, with that of one important event in their reign. It is true that most of these have little relevance to later life. But it means, that the pupil knows how to memorize facts and figures. And if he becomes a salesman when he grows up, he may have to spend a couple of days memorizing the descriptions and prices in a new catalogue. He will be able to do it if he has learnt the method at school. Untrained people, set to learn a list or perhaps a long poem, read it though a few times and then cover it with a card and try to remember the first line. They slide the card down one line to check, and then try the next one. When they make a mistake, they go back to the beginning again.

If it is a poem, they learn the first verse perfectly. Then they go on to the second, till they can repeat the two verses correctly. Then the third verse, and so on. Each time, they begin at the beginning. By the end, the first verse has been repeated say thirty times, and the last verse just a few times. This is an inefficient method, which results in a good familiarity with the first part of the list, and steadily weakening recall for the later parts. The efficient method is not to go back to the beginning after an error, but to go on. This seems to be slower, because for some time very few verses are perfectly recalled; but in fact the whole list is being learnt together, and quite suddenly there is almost perfect recall. But it takes practice, and faith; these generally have to be learnt at school. When the method has been learned, it is a great advantage in life.

The salesman’s catalogue does have an interest for him, but quite often in life we need to learn by heart things which have little significance for us; it is extremely boring. This was one reason for setting boring things as memory tasks at school. The several pages of irregular forms of Latin and French verbs, some of them rarely encountered, or the fact that the Old Testament prophet Elijah was a Tishbite, were deliberately set as exercises in bare application, with no stimulus. Sometimes it seemed that examples were chosen of almost comical pointlessness: French nouns ending in -i or -o are masculine: example Le cri du dodo. As the dodo bird became extinct in 1790, its possible cry is hardly a concern.

The Victorian view (which persisted well into the 20th century) was, that education must not be all interesting. You had to learn how to do boring things efficiently, because later on in life you would have to do boring things again and again. Most of life, for most people, would have many grey and uninteresting tasks. And you had to learn how to do them without becoming demoralized: “Oh why do I have to do this? I don’t want to do this.”

But granting that, I think that much of the Victorian teaching was extremely unimaginative. Instead of boring us with the Tishbite they could have made us train the memory on lists of the geological periods, or foreign currencies, or even the table of elements, which would have been equally boring, but could have come to life much later in life.

Some of the mechanically learned information did in fact turn out to have a use. The derided date of Agincourt does help to understand the background of some of Shakespeare’s plays. The English won it partly because the English bowmen, practising in the villages, had learnt how to make a longer draw, to the ear instead of to the cheek, thus increasing their range to out-shoot the Continental archers. The Magna Carta in 1215 tells us that even at that early date, “The English church should be free”. So although much of the material was no more than dumbbells to develop memory, some could be fruitful.
There is an unspoken assumption that to cram the mind with facts and figures -as it is put – must be at the expense of creativity. The idea is based some crude notion of the brain as a sponge which can become soaked and unable to receive any more. In fact only a fraction of the powers of memory are used today in the West. Thackeray the brilliant 19th Century author of Vanity Fair recited the whole of Milton’s Paradise Lost from memory during a storm at sea. In Indian philosophy, it was expected that the basic text, and usually one commentary, should be in the memory, and that a scholar should be able to quote instantly from any passage of it in debate.

This sort of memory does not add to the amount remembered, for the mind is remembering anyway masses of trivial and pointless details. The trained memory makes available an orderly arrangement of potentially useful information. 19th century educators sometimes ignored the last point that the information should be potentially of value. The comparison with physical training will show that the Spartan-style training should be based on respect, indeed on love. When in later years, those former children find that what bored or antagonised them was ultimately helpful, they will appreciate the training, instead of reluctantly conceding that “it taught me how to tackle boring things, I suppose.”

Training is only the first part of fitting one for life: sharpening the tools of the mind. Mere sharpening does not produce creativity. A clear memory is essential for calm analysis and persistence is essential for completing any substantial project. The doctrine of spontaneous effortless creation, with no training, is beginning to wear thin, though still widespread. A Professor of Music told a student: “Don’t come to me for lessons in composition. I should have to teach you how to compose like Arensky or someone like that. Go your own way, you can be free, to do exactly as you like.” This was reported with approval by a newspaper. The question which is never asked, is: Were the resulting “free” compositions any good? These days, words like good are banned from the vocabulary of criticism, being replaced by challenging, barrier breaking, and shocking. But the sparseness of audiences is a sufficient answer.

Memory learning need not stifle creativity. Chopin and Wagner, arguably among the most original composers who ever lived, were experts in the works of their predecessors. Chopin, playing a fugue of Bach (then becoming appreciated again after 80 years of neglect) forgot the conclusion and improvised a new one of his own. The fully mature Wagner after the unresolved dissonances of Tristan And Isolde which were said to have changed Western music forever, wrote and composed the tonal Mastersingers with several set pieces in the old operatic style, the best of which is the Quintet in the mediaeval madrigal form.

As the Chinese phrase puts it: “If the artist has not been through the training in the works of his great predecessors, the things of Heaven may indeed take shape within his heart, but they do not take shape under his hands.”

Memory: exercise not burden

It is thought to be axiomatic today that to require students to memorise many things will produce robots and “stifle creativity”. No evidence is usually produced for this assumption; it is somehow regarded as self-evident. Let us look at a definite case. In the English educational system we have to learn 26 letters of the alphabet, some of which have differing block capital forms. But in addition we have to learn the number digits 1-9, and how to read them. The digits are international, on the page but sound quite different when spoken in the various languages. For instance, 92 is read by us as ninety-two, but in French it is read quartre-vingt-douze. Then we have symbols such as ‘=’ equals, ‘=’ is-not–equal-to and so on. There are 30 or 40 of these that have to be learnt. Furthermore some of the digits 1,2,3…, are read differently when they are followed by certain letters. For instance, 2nd is read second, and 2-ennial can be read biennial. Altogether one might count up to about 100 of these signs which have to be memorised.

Compare this with the 2000 odd ideograms which Japanese children have mastered by the time they are sixteen. Each one corresponds to something like our ampersand sign ‘&’, but usually much more complicated with 10 or 12 strokes making up the form of the character. Each of the characters has 2 or 3 different readings like our example of 2nd above. A well read Japanese can read and write at least 2500 characters and scholars will know another 500 special to their field.

Westerners are often horrified when they first hear of this “burden” imposed on the memory and assume that there must be many in Japan who are simply unable to learn them. But in fact the literacy rate and the school attendance figure is 99%. There is no native Japanese word for dyslexia in the language – it had to be translated from the English (Nan-doku-sho or difficult-reading-syndrome).

According to the United Nations translation experts Japanese is the most difficult language in the world to master, this is confirmed by, for instance, the Jesuits. They report that when one of their number, often already expert in 2 or 3 languages is directed under obedience to devote himself fulltime to mastering a new language it usually takes at least 3 years when living in the country. But in the case of Japanese it takes over 5 years.

Are we now to suppose that the ordinary Japanese, under the crushing burden of memorising the language will be robotic and lacking in creativity. The evidence is that, on the contrary, that the composition of the short poems called ‘tanka’ is practised by millions of Japanese, and they are appreciated by millions more. The culture of poetry is everywhere in Japan: the great newspapers with circulation’s of 7 or 8 million customarily print one such at the end of the weather forecast each day. There are popular monthly magazines that invite poems from the public and print hundreds of them each month. A housewife, an army sergeant, a clerk and a factory worker may all one month be showing a copy of one of these magazines to friends and saying “I got one in this time”.

Now let us see whether intellectually Japanese are crippled by rote learning their own language. Take the case of physics the most abstract of the sciences. Two of the most revolutionary discoveries of 20th century physics were predicted by Japanese physicists. In 1903 Nagaoka predicted the nuclear structure of the atom, as against the doughnut model which was then the orthodox view; then in 1909 Rutherford confirmed it by shooting alpha particles through gold foil and immediately wrote to Nakaoka to that effect. In 1935, Hideki Yukawa, with great courage predicted an intermediate particle between the accepted duality of the proton and electron. This was in flat contradiction to the triumphalist doctrine of the time that science had gloriously reduced the complexity if nature to a simple duality (or trinity allowing the neutron).

In every day life there is a strong intellectual current in Japan. A prominent place in all the main newspapers is given to the two board games GO (played with black and white stones and concerned with capturing territory), and Shogi (Japanese chess, enlivened by paratroops dropped onto the board in lieu of a move). The masters of these games are prominent public figures. It can be argued that the Japanese Shogi is more complicated than the Western game because of the almost incalculable possibilities of the paratroop drops. As evidence of this Shogi checkmating problems have every move a check where as in the West such a rule would make the problem too obvious. Again we have no game with the subtleties of GO.

Can the intellectual and poetic streams combine? They have done in the past. The multi-talented 9th century saint-scholar usually called Kobo Daishi is traditionally the inventor of the Japanese alphabet (strictly speaking a syllabary). Before his time the language had no alphabet of its own and had to be written by using random Chinese characters having approximately the same phonetic value as the syllables to be written – a clumsy system indeed. It was he who first classified the fifty syllables of the language in the most scientific way (still used in grammars), and selected certain simplified symbols to represent them. So far the scholar. Then the poet in him thought that for teaching the new alphabet he would embody the syllables in a poem in a particular metre, using each syllable once and once only. But Kobo was not only scholar and poet, he was also a saint. He decided that his poem should declare the essence of Buddhism, and paraphrased four lines of the Nirvana-sutra as representing the heart of the Buddhist doctrine. The stanza in the original Sutra is as follows:

“All earthly things pass away:
This is the law of all existence.
Going beyond this law of extinction,
We are in the bliss of Nirvana alone”.

The extreme difficulty of the task may be imagined, but Kobo solved it brilliantly with a poem of great beauty:

In Kobo’s poem the lines are:

i ro ha ni ho he to chi ri nu ru (w)o
wa ka yo ta re so tsu ne na ra mu
u (w)i no o ku ya ma ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi (w)e hi mo se su

This can be translated as:

“The blooms are fragrant, but alas! They fall.
Who in this world can remain forever?
Crossing this day the mountains of transient existence
We see no more shallow dreams nor get drunk on them”.

In a traditional theatre, the rows of seats were identified by the syllables of this poem so the ticket holders would come in and walk down the ails looking at the little panels on the end of the rows showing I, RO, HA, and so on. They would be repeating the lines of the Buddhist poem “The blossoms are fragrant, but alas! They fall, Who in this world can remain forever… ” Ah! Here we are. The learning by heart brings a little beauty and meaning into an everyday affair of life.

In ancient India before there was writing not merely holy texts but all others were learnt by heart. Classics of medicine and grammar were often in verse, to make them easier to memorise. The ability was continued long after writing was introduced about 200 BC and even up to recent times. When Professor Paul Deussen, one of the founding fathers of Sanskrit studies in the West, went to India to gather material for his famous Philosophy of the Upanishads, he made arrangements to study a particular text with one of the great pundits of the time, Ramishra Shastri. He relates that when he went for the first meeting he sat at the table opposite the pundit and laid his copy of the 150-page text in front of him with his notebook ready to begin. He knew it was customary to exchange a few pleasantries at the beginning, but after this he waited for the pundit to produce his copy of the book but the pundit made no move to do so and a silence fell. The pundit seemed to be waiting for something to. After a little the pundit said ” Well, Professor, don’t you think we might begin now?” He then recited the first half page of the text from memory. Deussen hastily opened his book to follow and the lesson began. Neither then nor at any time afterwards did the pundit use a book. He knew the whole text by heart, and could instantly quote from any part of it.

The spiritual application is that a yoga student is asked to memorise important verses from the classics, and meditate on them. Keen students often memorise a chapter of thirty or forty verses. When these have been not merely learnt but meditated, they make a channel through which inspirations can come easily and without distortion. As an example a brahmacari on a pilgrimage in the mountains became separated from the party and fell into a cleft injuring his leg so badly that he could not get out. He knew it was very unlikely that he would be rescued. He said that in his despair a line of a Gita verse suddenly came to him: “My devotee does not perish.” He said that he knew he was going to die but he felt a bright stream of immortality within him as he drifted into unconsciousness. In the event by an amazing chance he was found and another member of the party was able to pull him out to safety.

In another case, a man had meditated on some of the incidents in the life of Christ, among them the case of the woman adulteress taken before Jesus in the temple. This man had been engaged in rather dubious transactions which by chance were exposed in the Press; he lost reputation, credit and friends. Crushed, he found it difficult to pick himself up and begin a new life when the phrase came to him: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.” He felt forgiven and stirring in him a new courage.

Professional interrogators say that if someone has inner resources, such as memorised poems, that person will be difficult to break down. But if they are entirely extraverted and thus dependent on the surroundings they can often be induced to form an attachment and dependence on the interrogator. Most of us will not have to face interrogation but nearly all will encounter at some time a situation of great stress or perhaps isolation. At these times the inner channels, if prepared, can open to a flood of light.