Something to keep and hold for ever

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
I remember, I remember, The school where I was taught, To learn by heart great chunks of verse, And Latin verbs that made me curse, And Greek declensions (even worse?) And dates like Agincourt.

The trouble with having a good memory is that other people keep borrowing it. "What's Jack's number, Mum?" the daughter doing A-levels yells from her room. Jack is the youth she met on holiday in the Tyrol last summer. How the hell should I know, he's your wretched boyfriend is the obvious response, but long years of apprenticeship in the Gradgrind school of learning have conditioned me otherwise. It makes no difference that I am in the kitchen (where else?) ironing shirts, preparing supper for 10 and testing the six-year-old on the spellings in his PAC1 folder. "0043662844192" I reply automatically. Other people's postcodes, other people's children's birthdays, the name of the hotel where my mother-in-law spent her honeymoon 60 years ago - I can remember them all.

Given the choice I'd rather have had brains, but in the bad old educational days of learning by rote, a good memory got you a long way. I have no illusions. It was my memory that got me my O-levels, my A-levels, even my degree. It was my grasp of the three R's - read, retain, regurgitate - and not, alas, my capacity to reason, analyse, mull, infer, or deduce.

The other day I offered to help my son doing GCSE with his history revision. "I still know a few dates," I said smugly, but instead of the time-honoured list of anniversaries usually associated with the Tudor monarchs, births, demises, injudicious marriages, random beheadings and Armada defeats, what did he produce? Source material, documentary evidence, contemporary accounts - what on earth did it all mean? It flummoxed me as much as it would have flummoxed my old history teacher Mrs Owen. I can see her now standing up there by the blackboard carefully drawing the convoluted, four-pronged Peloponnesian coastline while intoning the date that Demosthenes sailed from Athens to do battle with the Spartan hordes. Why he sailed we never knew, what he did afterwards remains a mystery, but by golly I remember when the Battle of Pylos happened - 425 BC that's when. Show Mrs Owen documentary evidence that Pylos was a Corinthian put-up job and Demosthenes an undercover terrorist from Macedonia and all she'd have said was: "Is that document dated?"

Memorising information purely to pass exams is hardly education. When I did my finals on Hamlet I knew all five soliloquies by heart and pretty much quoted them verbatim in my essay, the only original contribution being an occasional cunning link between quotations. You know the sort of thing chat show hosts devise when introducing another guest.

With few exceptions they don't teach memory in schools any more. In a rare moment of non-conformity, I sent my daughters to an eccentric academy in Kensington, where at five they knew all 12 times tables backwards and chanted long Sanskrit dirges before every lesson to purify their minds. For a small remuneration, they would chant at home to visitors. "What does it mean?" whispered my friends in awe. "Don't know," they replied and droned on. Abandoning St James for more conventional tuition, they soon got the hang of calculators. Who needs times tables when you can take a calculator into an exam? There was a distressing incident during one daughter's GCSE maths, though. The boy next to her suddenly swore, groaned, then slumped on to his desk. What he thought was his calculator turned out to be the remote control of his portable TV.

To crib or not to crib? It's all a bit of a mishmash. Some examining boards allow pupils to bring in their set texts, others don't. The daughter doing German was permitted a dictionary, the one doing Italian wasn't. Not that a Latin dictionary would be much use if you hadn't done the proper legwork first. I heard a depressing lecture on the radio recently about education in the millennium.

In a strangled spaceship voice, the speaker foretold that in the year 2010 personal laptops with Internet modems would be obligatory for all exams. Children wouldn't need to know how to spell or even write. They'd just read the question, access the information, arrange it attractively on the screen, print it out, and hey presto - starred A's, double firsts, laurels with everything.

Amidst all this impressive if confusing high-techery it was oddly comforting to learn that Cardinal Vaughan, my daughter's Roman Catholic state school, was planning its first Verse Speaking Competition - memorised verse of course. Trendier, nerdier headteachers might have been inclined to spend the Pounds 500 donated to the school by a grateful parent on a new microchip or two, or an extra security camera. Happily, Mr Pellegrini, head of the school, is more poetically - dare one say, more romantically - inclined, as his selection of poets for the competition suggests: Keats, de la Mare, Mr and Mrs Browning, Shakespeare's schmaltzier sonnets. They're all there.

Poetry yes, but why the necessity to learn it? "Because it enriches the mind just by being there, it's something you can keep and hold for ever," Mr Pellegrini says - "like music". So how many 13-year-olds weaned on Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Rambo are likely to settle down and learn La Belle Dame Sans Merci? All of them, I'd guess, since the first prize for every year is Pounds 50.

Mr Pellegrini was planning to swamp the school with posters to advertise the event. "A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds," says one. That was Shelley, I think, or was it Keats? Damn, I can't remember.

Sue Arnold has six children and is employed by the Observer

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