Memory is the cabinet of the imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, and, the council chamber of thought.

St. Basil

I’ve been reading and enjoying Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget in which Kieran Egan launches a blistering attack on the tenets of progressivism. What’s particularly interesting about it is that it’s written by a man who describes himself as “someone who has considerable sympathy with progressive ideals.” (p6)

I’ll write more on the general and fascinating thrust of the book another time. Today I want just to pick up some points Egan makes about rote learning. Spencer, Dewey and many others thought of rote learning as “vicious” and this caricature is still very much en vogue in many schools and across social media. How often do we hear ‘drill and kill’ dismissively disparaged? Even the dictionary defines rote as, “learning or memorisation by repetition, often without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in the material that is learned.”

This is, perhaps, the one area where the dominance of progressive ideology has had a profound and lasting impact on the classroom. Nowadays it is rare indeed for children to be taught anything by rote. Or, to use a less pejorative term, by heart.

There have been some recent in-roads with Andrew Motion’s Poetry by Heart competition being championed by many writers and teachers, but essentially it remains a much maligned and neglected method of teaching. Egan’s point is that certain ways of thinking about education are so in grained that we fail to think about them and instead think with them; a term like rote learning “becomes understood increasingly literally and separately from the complex of education ideas that originally gave it meaning.” (p67) We don’t even consider whether rote learning might sometimes be an effective tool – we know, deep in our hearts that it is an instrument of evil, born in some bleak Gradgrindian hell hole, perpetrated on children in order to crush their eager little spirits. It is clearly anathema to the ideals of progressive education as it is unnatural, unpleasant and laborious.

This unthinking rejection of learning by heart has, in Egan’s words, deprived children of “developing those resources that come along with a wide and immediate access to some of the world’s greatest poetry and prose.”

And in a thundering broadside against the ‘you can just Google it’ brigade:

That they know where to go to find such poetry and prose perpetuates the absurdity that this is the same as knowing something. Knowledge does not exist in books or in computer files. They contain only codes that require a living mind to bring them back to life as knowledge.

Knowledge only exists as a function of living tissue. (p68)

This well-intentioned but disastrous move away from memorising the richness of what the world has to offer has impoverished everyone who has fallen under its sway. But learning things by heart is something we do automatically – especially as very young children. It comes naturally whether we’re recalling the words to nursery rhymes or reeling off stories word for word before we can read. Daniel Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Here are some reasons to learn something by heart:

  • It’s a challenge – it feels pretty good to memorise stuff whether it’s a Shakespeare sonnet or the 7 times table
  • It’s good training for our brains – we become better at retaining information through the practise of trying to retain it. And what does practice make? Permanent!
  • We notice details which we would be otherwise miss
  • Multiple readings or viewings help to better understand the material we are learning.

Watch this talk from Joshua Foer for further inspiration on the joy of memorising:

I learned firsthand that there are incredible memory capacities latent in all of us. But if you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.

Also, read these posts by Kris Boulton:

Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 1: Poetry is hard
Should we force kids to memorise poems? Part 2 – How I learnt to stop worrying, and love the poem