Page images
PDF
EPUB

Abstract and concrete memory.

131

of your pupils, that the first condition of easy remembering is that we care to remember, that if we have a bad memory, it is not nature's fault, but it is simply because we do not put sufficient force of will into the act of tying together the ideas which we propose to keep associated. Promise children some pleasure, and they will find no difficulty in remembering it. To say that we do not recollect a thing is simply to say that we did not pay sufficiently close attention to it, when it was first brought before our minds.

And what is the kind of memory we want most to Verbal and cultivate? Is it the memory of words, or of the things

rational

memory and facts represented by those words? Is it the concrete memory which carries accurate impressions of visual pictures or of sounds, or is it the abstract memory which retains the gist and meaning of what has been heard and seen? No doubt it is good to secure each of these kinds of power. Some people who are keen at remembering the relations between events, and the substance of what they hear, have a difficulty in remembering mere names and words. But if we were to choose, and could only secure one, we should prefer to have the memory for things, their causes, effects, and mutual relations, rather than the power of mere verbal reminiscence. In schools however, we want both, and it is a great point in education to know when to cultivate the one, and when to aim at the other. If you hear a pupil demonstrate a proposition in Euclid, you want memory of course, but it is the memory of a logical sequence, and not of particular words. In fact, if you have any reason to suspect that he has learned it heart, you at once change A, B, C on the diagram to X, Y, Z, or adopt some other device to baffle him. For to turn what is meant as a discipline in ratiocination, into

an exercise of purely verbal memory destroys the whole value of the lesson, and makes nonsense of it. And if you have been giving a lesson on History, and have described say the period of the English Revolution—the attempt at the dispensing power, the trial of the seven bishops, the bigotry of James II. and the final catastrophe: you want all these facts to be linked together in their due correlation as causes and effects; and when they are reproduced to come up again as facts, in words supplied by your pupil and representing his own thoughts, not in the particular words which you happened to use in teaching. In these cases Montaigne's aphorism applies with special force, Savoir par cæur n'est pas savoir. Nothing would be gained, but much would be lost, if instead of requiring him thus to recall the events in his own way, you set him to learn by heart some sentences from a history book in which those facts were summarized. The associations you want to fix in the memory here are

of events, not of words or phrases. Learning

Are there then no occasions on which it is wise and by heart,

desirable to establish verbal associations and to require when legitimate. them to be committed to memory, or to use a common

expression, to be learned by heart? Undoubtedly there

Let us look at them. (1) There are in arithmetic and in all the exact sciences certain formulae which are frequently in use, which have constantly to be referred to, and which we want to use at a moment's notice. The multiplication table for example. 7 times 9 make 63. The association between these figures is apparently arbitrary. Reflection and reasoning would not help me much to know that they do not make 53 ; and when I am working a problem in which the fact is available, I do not want to reason or reflect at all. The two figures should suggest 63 instantaneously by Learning by heart, when legitimate.

are.

133

a mechanical process, and without a moment's thought. So it is good to know that the relation of the diameter to the circumference of a circle is expressed by the figures i and 3:14159, because this fact is often wanted in working out problems in mensuration, and furnishes a key to the rapid estimation of the sizes of familiar things. In the case of each of these terse and fruitful formulae, we observe that there is one thing right and everything else is wrong; there should be no mistake at all in our minds in regard to the exact truth; and the frequency with which the formula becomes of use fully justifies us in the labour of committing it to memory.

(2) There are some things which we want to remember in substance, but which are best remembered in one particular form. Geometrical definitions and axioms, and some rules in Latin syntax are of this kind. They have been carefully reduced to the simplest form of expression, it is specially necessary that they should be applied with perfect accuracy, and we therefore do well to have them in our mind in one fixed and concise form.

(3) Again, there are some things which deserve to be remembered as much on account of the special form they assume as on that of the truths they embody. If the language in which a truth is conveyed has any special authority, any historic significance, or any poetical beauty, the language itself becomes a thing worth appropriating, over and above the thoughts conveyed in that language. So verses of poetry, passages from great writers and orators, formularies of faith, wise maxims in which, as Lord Russell said, the wisdom of many has been fixed and concentrated by the wit of one—all these are worth learning by heart. The memory is enriched by a store of strong thoughts or of graceful expressions;-a great and

pregnant passage from Shakespeare, a few fervid and finished sentences from an oration of Burke, a piece of jewelled eloquence from one of Jeremy Taylor's sermons, a quaint aphorism from old Fuller, a sweet restful poem by Wordsworth, or some devout spiritual utterance of George Herbert or Keble, has a preciousness of its own which depends rather on its artistic excellence as a specimen of language, than on its value as a statement of truth. And it is this very artistic excellence which gives it its special claim to lie garnered in the store-house of memory. The possessor of such a store has a resource in hours of weariness or dulness, when thoughts are sluggish and imagination is weak. He goes back and finds that by recalling such utterances his thoughts are stimulated and his emotions ennobled'. But this would not happen if the words themselves were not felt to have a fitness and beauty of their own.

There is therefore a right use and a wrong use of what I have for my present purpose called by the rather unscientific name of the verbal memory,' or what is generally known as “learning by heart.' This too is not a felicitous phrase, for of all conceivable employments for the human understanding, this kind of task work has the least 'heart' in it. No doubt many teachers have been accustomed to rely too much on the power of remembering words. It is the easiest of all forms of school-keeping to say “Go and learn that lesson, and then come and say it to me,” and accordingly, setting tasks to be learned by heart is the chief, almost the only, resource of teachers who cannot teach, and are content to be mere pedagogic machines. But then the opposite of wrong is not always

1 “What we want for ready use is a well-turned sentence form, or a suitable designation or phrase for some meaning that we are at a loss to render.” BAIN.

[blocks in formation]

right; and in the reaction against a system which relied wholly on the memory and never appealed to the judgment, we may very easily make another mistake equally great by discrediting and undervaluing the memory, by treating it as the Cinderella in the household of the human faculties, useful merely as a drudge.

We are, I hope, prepared now to come to a true General conclusion as to the right use of this great educational principle

to be kept instrument. And this is the conclusion. When the in view. object is to have thoughts, facts, reasonings reproduced, seek to have them reproduced in the pupil's own words. Do not set the faculty of mere verbal memory to work. But when the words themselves in which a fact is embodied have some special fitness or beauty of their own, when they represent some scientific datum or central truth, which could not otherwise be so well expressed, then see that the form as well as the substance of the expression is learned by heart.

And, having once determined that this is worth doing, Thoroughsee that it is thoroughly done. It is of no value to learn a thing by heart unless it is learned so thoroughly that it can be recalled without the least mistake and at a moment's notice. Other lessons, in which the understanding is chiefly concerned, may be only partially successful, and yet be of some use. A lesson half understood is better than no lesson at all. But a memoriter lesson half learned—said with a few promptings, and blundered through just well enough to escape serious blame-is sure to be forgotten directly afterwards, and simply comes to nothing. Yes, it does come to something. It leaves behind it a sense of wasted time and a disgust for the whole subject to which it relates. That is all. Grant also that for some such good reason as I have How to

commit to named, you determine to set certain lessons to be learned memory.

ness.

« PreviousContinue »