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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

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Rote learning and Boris

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Wednesday, 18 March 2009 at 05:12 pm
I am glad to have caught up with the Mayor's marvellous column yesterday morning, in which he calls for the introduction of rote learning of poetry in our schools.

A lot of very exciting neuroscience is emerging which looks at the potential benefits of the rote learning of poetry.  Islamic education is in essence just that, of course: children spend their time in a madrassa learning the Koran, and their academic achievement generally correlates with the proficiency of their memory in reciting it.

Indian education also places huge store by rote learning.  My dad forced me to learn Gray's Elegy and many of the Sonnets, usually because he knew them himself.

The Mayor's idea is, of course, a good one, and learning two or three poems a term would do wonders for us all.  

Yet the column is also used by Boris, or indeed his editor, to advance a deceitful proposition.

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions on the Right in Britain today that only Tories believe in a thorough, rigorous academic education for all.  This view has no basis in reality, and is one of those little voodoo dolls created by partisans (people on the Left do it too, of course) to give their fellow ideologues something to stick their pins into, and thereby cohere around.

One of the central strands of the argument advanced by Boris is that whereas Right-wing people favour schooling, Left-wing people seek to replace it with skilling.  This is nonsense.

If you don't believe me, read thisthisthis, this, and this piece in defence of education for the poor by David Perks.
He has spent 25 years in the state sector, (including two hellish ones teaching me) fighting the systematic dismantling of academic education by people on both Right and Left who think only posh people are capable of critical thought.  

Believe me, he is not a Tory.

Alan Ryan's seminal book, Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education, reviewed here, makes a similar case very well. 

I am very aware that editors need to find a way of presenting their columnists' argument as fresh, radical, or somehow enraging.  But the Telegraph's intelligent readership deserve better than to be patronised in this way.  They know, as I do, that Boris' belief in the value of learning poetry has nothing whatsoever to do with being Right-wing.

The atrocious state of our education system is far more complicated than that.


Bad idea
oernster wrote:
Thursday, 19 March 2009 at 02:07 am (UTC)
Rote learning is a terrible idea. Not that it wouldn't be nice to know the odd bit of poetry.

I can see its use in absolute basics such as the alphabet and learning number bons and times tables but beyond that it teaches a very limited way of thinking about the world and certainly doesn't prepare young minds for the world at large; least of all the workplace.

We should be concentrating on teaching kids how to think for themselves and learning how to learn. Being able to braindump information from memory is of limited use in my opinion.
Re: Bad idea
wormery wrote:
Thursday, 19 March 2009 at 05:12 pm (UTC)
Utter piffle. 'learning how to learn' is spurious crap. As is most fashionable educational theory which all comes from the USA. All multiple intelligence lies and VAK nonsense - which ha NO BASIS WHATSOEVER in neurological research or fact. bet you didn;t realise that eh.

Rote learning is great. I learnt my times tabels at 8 and have automatic recall - those who suffered inner London schooling by PC hippy teachers (child-centres discovery learning fans who were anti spelling tests and learning times tables) are now illiterate and innumerate.

There can be both of course - but in mainland europe they learn knowledge and facts, whereas in the UK kids learn NOTHING and are so ignorant by comparison. So learn the facts by heart, the think about them, then think for yourself. The facts come first; the thinking builds on them. The British education system is skewed way to far to the 'learn no facts' but 'learn how to learn' piffle so our kids are so ignorant of facts most Polish and French kids know (because they learn facts and by rote - IT WORKS!!!!!). And British kids can't do basic maths or spell. What an utter travesty! SHAME!
Re: Bad idea
oernster wrote:
Thursday, 19 March 2009 at 06:19 pm (UTC)
Well, I have to say I agreed with you on the times table front. I also know my times tables off by heart. That said, I am ignorant of neurological research, I can only go on my own experiences of life.

I have a terrible memory and the career path I chose does not hinder me even though this is a fault of mine. I have a degree in physics which only requires that you learn first principles; you can derive profound a understanding of the universe from a few simple ideas and structures using mathematics as your tool of choice.

Furthermore, my subsequent career choice (software engineering) requires me to only have the ability to learn how to apply a language or few - which I can also learn. Basically, I teach myself everything I need to learn from books and continually relearn to support my career with new technologies; that lifelong learning stuff the government talks about I suppose, though without the use of the education system. I do not learn anything by rote, only develop an understanding of what is required and then apply it in the workplace.


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