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.”

© 2000 Trevor Leggett