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It’s right to test learning by heart

UK schools

It’s right to test learning by heart

To forget that sense and memory are allies would be a big mistake

Professing himself an “enemy of those who would deprecate the study of French lesbian poetry”, Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, told a gathering of the Independent Academies Association in London on Wednesday that education was not so much about what one learnt as how one learnt it. He wants more – and more rigorous – meritocratic tests. Mr Gove also wants more rote learning.

Examinations can indeed help merit-based power structures to topple privilege – but Mr Gove is wrong if he thinks they do so reliably. “In America,” he says, “the use of scholastic aptitude tests opened up access to colleges which had in the past arbitrarily blocked minority students.” That may have been true three-quarters of a century ago, when a numerus clausus kept Jews out of elite universities. Something different happens today. While the SAT has certainly helped some recent Asian immigrants, its general tendency is to decrease, not increase, diversity. Where that happens, politics usually requires that the SAT be ignored or played down.

Mr Gove is wrong, too, to scoff at the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s vision of a Britain that does more for the 50 per cent who do not attend university. In Poland, Mr Gove claims, 73 per cent of students matriculate. If so, some of them must be taking degrees in tyre realignment and pizza delivery. In a globalised economy, western countries will not need more than, say, 20 per cent of their populations in university, unless we assume a global division of labour in which the west continues to perform all the managerial work while the rest of the world remains content to hew wood and draw water.

The argument Mr Gove makes in favour of memorising “scales or times tables or verse” is considerably stronger. It has been attacked for years now – unfairly. Typical of the dudgeon is an editorial complaint in the Manchester Evening News this summer: “Forward-thinking schools do not simply try to force students to learn a Shakespeare piece and recite it parrot-fashion but, instead, help students to understand it.” But one is not inimical to the other. Sense and memory are allies. Which Talking Heads song would you have an easier time memorising? “Psycho Killer” (“I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax”)? Or “I Zimbra” (“Gadji beri bimba clandridi / Lauli lonni cadori gadjam”)?

Rote learning is more like training than learning. It is the trellis on which a free thinker can climb. Some material, like Latin declensions and the reigns of English monarchs, is amenable to learning by rote. Other stuff, like the causes of the cold war, needs to be put in a wider context. Having been educated at the apogee of hostility to rote learning, I can count on one hand the things I was taught that way. One is the list of German prepositions that take the dative, aus-außer-bei-mit-nach-seit-von-zu. To figure out what form to use with außer initially requires pausing, running through the list mentally and looking like an idiot. But do it three or four times and außer will start to “feel” like a preposition that takes the dative. And you can never learn anything really new without running the risk of looking like an idiot.

“Memorisation” used to be almost a synonym for “culture”. Hindus commit sutras to memory. A Muslim who knows the Koran by heart is esteemed as a hafiz. A bar mitzvah must read the Hebrew scriptures. Christian teenagers across the US will meet in Louisville, Kentucky in May for the Bible Bowl, at which they will compete on their verbatim recall of the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps rote learning is despised because the authority it propped up is held in low esteem by today’s figures of authority. Memory is no longer a way to convey a society’s sacred heritage. It is a party trick. The internet has only multiplied our excuses for doing without it. In an age of Google and Wikipedia, memorisation seems a waste of time.

It is not. When Mr Gove says that education “can only come from the initial submission of the student’s mind to the body of knowledge contained within specific subjects”, he has tapped into lost wisdom. And we are wrong to have forgotten that, in education, submission is empowerment. American educators have made inculcating self-esteem a priority. Perhaps that is why US education gets such poor results, because education is at odds with self-esteem. The student is being educated in the first place because society assumes he is somehow deficient. Competition, perhaps cruelly, is meant to spur education by heightening this sense of deficiency. But we don’t think that way any more.

We take the attitude of Mickey Rivers, the New York Yankees outfielder of the 1970s, who, asked if he believed his teammate Reggie Jackson’s claim to have an IQ of 160, replied: “Out of what – a thousand?”

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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