Published on 30/01/14
The digital revolution has certainly significantly changed the way in which our young people learn, and one of Michael Gove’s responses has been to promote the value of learning by heart. This has been seen in some quarters as reactionary and a return to antiquated educational techniques. The key, however, perhaps lies in the last two words of the phrase ‘learning by heart’. The literary heart is a place of emotion, our private centre, our core, a repository of what we feel. Learning should be a passion because knowledge is empowering.
The English Department at the Stephen Perse Foundation is committed to the value of learning by heart for a variety of reasons. The obvious benefits of mental rigour and application aside, taking learning into ourselves and incorporating it into the fabric of our lives is one of the great values of education. Some of our Year 7s (6th grade), whilst recently studying ‘The Tempest’, have learnt a speech by Caliban, spitting out his venomous words of anger and frustration; some Year 8s (7th grade), during their work on ‘Twelfth Night’, have learnt to give voice to Viola’s passionate declaration of unrequited love; and some Year 9s (8th grade) learnt and performed, often with hilarious results, a section of ‘Under Milkwood’ at a classroom Eisteddfod. The purpose of the kind of education that the Stephen Perse Foundation strives to offer is to provide students with lessons and experiences that they can draw upon, and benefit from, for the whole of their lives. What they learn with us should act as a springboard into a lifelong curiosity and thirst for mental stimulation.
In 1997, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney announced the publication of ‘The School Bag’ (Faber and Faber) as co-editors of a magisterial second anthology of poems for young people. Hughes believed that the poems within its pages were all worth learning, but not necessarily by rote. “It should be a pleasure…the whole point is to get the poem, by any means, foul or fair, into the head.” To do this he suggested linking visual images to their verbal counterpoints to sear the words into the mind. Learning by heart need not mean passive, dull retention; the process itself can be an engaging experience. Seamus Heaney concluded: “What matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well-remembered...It can become the eye of a verbal needle through which the growing person can pass again and again until it is known by heart, and becomes a path between heart and mind, a path by which the individual can enter, repeatedly, into the kingdom of rightness.” This path is the essence of learning for the English Department.
The act of taking the time and effort to commit something to memory because one responds to it as a lens on life, or because it makes one laugh, or perhaps simply because of the beauty of the language, enriches us all. Initially that process of retention may be ‘forced upon’ a student by their teacher. In time, however, they will come to recognise its worth and pursue it independently; as educators it is a huge privilege to witness that penny dropping. As a life skill being able to speak fluently, incorporating apposite references into what we say without recourse to notes, is invaluable - whether as a keynote speaker, in a presentation to colleagues, debating an issue, or even teaching in a classroom. To have a world of words, framed by the literary greats, on tap whenever one wishes is a constant comfort, pleasure and source of insight and inspiration. It is also the mark of a rounded education. What we say, and what we are able to say, creates a lasting impression on people.
The mind, unlike WiFi, never goes down. It is a permanent connection to who we are, how we define ourselves and how we experience life. Stocking it and owning that knowledge is essential. Whether you learn lyrics, lines from films, prose or poetry, make your unique mind your unique library. You will never regret it.