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Not a week goes by in Ireland without someone in the media telling us that the Leaving Cert is ‘not fit for purpose’. Everyone from property consultants, architects, educationists, journalists and STEM people of every hue condemn it as a mere exercise in what they call ‘rote learning’. Students need 21st century skills they say, creativity, critical thinking and so on and on and on. These terms have now descended into a swamp of cliché. The mantras are passed from one to another in a way that suggests a profound lack of original thought. These arguments apply to training for a job not education for life. This is gradgrindery at its worst. Memorisation of anything at all is roundly condemned. These  Irish times articles are typical.


I do not believe for an instant that English teachers, as suggested in the first above, are demanding that students learn answers to literature questions by rote. Perhaps some foolish pupils engage in this independently in their exam panic. Perhaps grind schools encourage this. Perhaps not. I imagine examiners can spot the learned off answers at fifty paces. I cannot believe that the student who gains A1 in English has prepared for the exam in this fashion. I have never met an A1 English student who was anything other than a star. Let us not denigrate them.
Having said all that I believe that some things must be memorised. We are told that we need to store certain essentials in long term memory so as to be able to free up the working memory which we use in daily tasks. How I wish I had learned my times tables properly in 3rd class. Verbs must be learned if one is to progress in foreign languages. Even French people learn ‘bijou, caillou, chou…’ etc by heart so as to remember which nouns have a plural in x. Little bits of what we learned by heart can be recalled years later. ‘Derwent, Swale, Ure, Nid, Wharf, Aire and Don’. ‘Da Estrela, De Gata , De Gredos, Toledo, Morena, Nevada’. What fun as an adult to find oneself beside mountains and rivers we had memorised in geography class and to find we know which one comes next. When Americans talk about ‘the rust belt’ I find myself chanting ‘Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Buffalo, Wheeling, Erie, Youngstown, Chicago’.
Professional singers must memorise songs and librettos. Actors must learn their lines. Music fans happily memorise lyrics for their own pleasure. Little kids love the repetition of favourite nursery rhymes and songs. It is a big component of how language is learned. Once upon a time before everything had to be demonstrably ‘useful’ we had poetry on the curriculum of the old Inter Cert which we memorised . I remember ‘Quand je serai grand j’aurai des moustaches, un chapeau de soie, un bel habit noir…’ The point is this was useful also. That line alone taught us the irregular futures of être and avoir, that quand takes two futures unlike English and the interesting exception of bel rather than beau before the masculine h mute. We learned our prayers too God help us. I can still muster up some pity for millennial refusniks who are strangers to the Magnificat and much more.
The memory can be a storehouse of all kinds of delights which can stand to one in later life. Has it dawned on any of these education gurus that people might actually enjoy memorising poetry? ‘Give us a recitation’ they demanded of old guys at parties who claimed they could not sing. Many’s the man performed all eleven verses of The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God with no small degree of pride. I consider myself a lucky person in that I had a mother who delighted in reciting verse. The Stag Hunt and The Deserted Village were regularly revisited while baking bread, milking cows or driving the car. ‘…so work the honey bees’ from Henry V, Act 1 was a favourite.

Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor

I learned early on that having lots of poetry in one’s head could be a comfort. Nobody had to force me to learn it. I would cut out bits of verse from magazines and learn them on my own. Teachers who clearly loved poetry could inspire one also. Miss W., who taught me French in fifth year and who clearly loved Ronsard, would go all dreamy telling us about his love for Hélène and Cassandre and recite ‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose..’ in a wonderful voice. It made me want to learn it too. I admit there were those who knitted and wrote letters while she recited. Later they joined the bank. They knew their times tables though. We can’t all be the same.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were passed down the millennia by means of recitation. Shakespeare’s schooling in the Stratford Grammar School consisted of a great deal of memory work. We are the beneficiaries of what the Bard stored away. Without Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare we would have no Derek Mahon, no Seamus Heaney. The poetry of both is infused with the classics.
Packing our heads with lovely stuff can sustain us in adversity while Keeping up with The Kardashians and Say Yes to the Dress are sure to gain entry to vacuous minds. Last year I happened to find myself in a group where the discussion turned to the response of writers to nature. One of our number spontaneously recited the two wonderful opening paragraphs of Alan Paton’s, Cry the Beloved Country. ‘There is a lovely road that runs from Ikopo into the hills…..’ He had memorised it out of sheer love. Then there was the man who, not distinguishing himself in school, was advised by a teacher to learn as much poetry as possible. He thought this the best piece of advice he had ever been given. Lacking in outstanding qualifications he became a respected public speaker and passed through the world with an aura of learning about him.
I’m still trying to commit a few more bits of poetry to memory. I’ve downloaded some Horace on my phone to play over and over while walking the dog. Very soon I hope to have it de ghlainmheabhair . The perfect verse for the coming of Spring. Here it is with Houseman’s translation on a separate link. It would be great stuff for a skilled twenty first century creative critical thinker too.