A Letter to a Student

Liam Benson White Lady small

Liam Benson, White Lady (performance shot at Sydney Contemporary 2015). Image courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery. The artist will be performing Wednesday 2 March 2016 at Artereal Gallery.

The following email was sent late last year to a student who objected that the multiple-choice exam questions for a course I and another colleague were convening on English Poetry were ‘ridiculous’ in ‘the twenty-first century’, when such ‘information … is literally readily available at our fingertips’. The questions, twenty of them, tested students’ knowledge of historical, biographical, and formal aspects of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. The end-of-semester exam also required them to name the authors of five unidentified poems (or excerpts from poems) on the course. The student observed that studying poetry had been highly enjoyable; but that having to ‘rote learn dates and facts regarding the poets’ was ‘ludicrous’, ‘archaic’, and ‘crazy’.

In truth the course placed even more demands on students’ memory than just these multiple-choice and author-identification exam questions. My colleague and I had, after all, at the start of the semester, required our students to recite one of a list of specified poems from memory. The exam also asked them to write a short essay on two poets they had not discussed in their other written work for the course—and, because this exam was of the ‘closed-book’ kind, this question necessarily entailed their having to bring to memory certain relevant features of the poems they wished to discuss.

The letter below has been very slightly amended for publication; but in essence it is as sent. I thought I would publish it because the student’s objection to ‘rote learning’ touches on important questions about the nature of education and knowledge, and of the role of schools and universities in regard to them. I also think that, when the question of education is discussed in Australia and other Western countries nowadays, it tends to get rolled up almost immediately into various kinds of ideological and cultural wars—it seems we can’t think straight or clearly or calmly about these matters any more, and find the necessary common ground; and my hope is that this letter makes plain why I think it should be possible for people of different ideological commitments to find this common ground.

The student’s complaint about what is disparagingly called ‘rote learning’ touched off some preoccupations that seem to go quite some way back with me. For some reason the topic of memory has always been centrally important to any thinking I have done about culture, politics, and society. As a high-school student, fresh from reading 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, I wrote a story for my school magazine describing a totalitarian state dedicated to eradicating all traces of the past. It was a melodramatic piece (my hero, oppressed by his past-less world, ended up committing suicide) but its concerns are still with me. There seems, I must say, something especially horrible about ceding our memory to digital networks of one kind or another—who knows who will control these in the future? Perhaps the Controllers might abolish any aspects of the past that didn’t suit them? (On the other hand, the digital treasurehouses we now have are a great civilizational advance—and I confess that some of the items in my letter had to be double-checked against the many wonderful databases out there now.) Nevertheless we seem surrounded on all sides by haters of memory, whether it be Islamofascist vandals on the one hand (the Bamiyan Buddhas, Palmyra) or various ideologues and thought-police, hell-bent on transforming the Old Adam into the New Man, on the other. (Dickens has an interesting account of the value even of painful memory in The Haunted Man: a devilish Phantom offers to cancel the scientist Redlaw’s memories of sorrow, wrong, and trouble, along with all their “intertwisted chain of feelings and associations”; but what Redlaw discovers is that losing his sad memories also eradicates his capacity to feel anything, in particular destroying his ability to empathize with the suffering of others.) One day, bio-engineering will no doubt enable those in power to manipulate even our minds into the correct attitudes. The past is a bulwark, if a fragile one, against all that. One practice traditionally consecrated to memory is the humanities, which properly have (among other commitments) a curatorial responsibility towards past culture; it is significant, and calamitous, that they are so routinely neglected, even despised, now. Memory has few friends, certainly not in contemporary technocratic market societies, manically devoted to the maximization of production and consumption, a frantic materialism mis-described as ‘pleasure’. The past, if it is preserved, is for all of us a realm of possibility and freedom (it shows us how to live differently from the present —‘be not conformed to this world’, said Saint Paul—which is why ideologies are always hostile to it, or, at least, to its complexity — they don’t mind cartoon-like versions of it, that can be bent to their will). Cultures can lose their memory just like people can; in both cases the result is confusion, dehumanization, and anomie.

Dear X,

Thanks again for your message. I’ll try to be brief, but some of the points you raise broach large and complex issues—so if I go on too long, feel free to read this after the exam!

First, on the issue of ‘rote learning’. I have to say I rather dislike this phrase, which I think is prejudicial rather than descriptive. It is really a polemical term, and belongs to the educational ideologies that swept through the Western world, with dubious result, in the mid-twentieth century, though its genealogy is no doubt older still—perhaps going as far back as Rousseau. It implies (wrongly, in my view) that there is something pointless and even degrading about the acquirement of ‘mere’ information—as if all the important stuff took place in the realm of analysis and interpretation and theorizing. I’m afraid I disagree with that entirely. For me, information—or, a better word, knowledge—is always the beginning point of real thought. If we are doing real thinking, we are reflecting on something in particular—and that involves, as a necessary first step, the acquirement of actual information, facts, data. So that’s one point: information may not be knowledge (knowledge in some higher sense), and knowledge is not wisdom, as the adage has it; nevertheless information is a fundamental starting point in the acquirement of knowledge and (if one is lucky) wisdom.

A second objection I have to the polemical term ‘rote learning’ is that it devalues the cognitive challenges and rewards of memory. It makes the art of memory sound something lowbrow and mechanical. But that is not my experience. If I learn something by heart (a poem, for example, or some important historical or scientific facts), I feel as if my experience of the world has been augmented—not least because I am able to put those pieces of information into relation with other pieces of knowledge, in a critical and sometimes a creative way. My point here is that knowledge even in the ‘higher’ sense involves and is dependent upon and continually returns to memory. What one really and truly knows—or, in the nice words of The Book of Common Prayer, what one has obliged oneself to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’—is the bedrock of all higher intellectual and spiritual life, and enters into and shapes our very character. That’s why when people lose their memory, for example through dementia, it seems so tragic to us, because in forgetting all the things they once knew (even apparently trivial facts, such as that Wordsworth was born in the same year as Beethoven) they seem to lose a part of themselves. And it’s why Google is not the answer. Yes, it is the case that everything is now ‘at our fingertips’, and a good thing too. But being able to Google something is not the same thing as having what used to be called a ‘well-stocked mind’. It is enriching and pleasing to have important stuff to think about as one goes about one’s daily life. It is surely preferable to know than not to know—Aristotle thought the desire to know was a basic attribute of human beings—and knowing things, which surely means being able to recall them to mind, at the very least makes one more interesting to oneself (as, in their different ways, the writer Martin Amis and the critic Harold Bloom have both observed). That is why great creative thinkers are frequently perfectly willing to engage in the humble business of committing things to memory. The British metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead was a thinker on the largest scale; he also cultivated the habit of writing down the dates of any significant figure in human history. Despite, then, being the sort of genius who wants to understand the ultimate nature of reality, Whitehead didn’t disdain humdrum facts such as when someone important lived and died. The brilliant, polymath literary critic George Steiner has said he tries never to let a day go by when he doesn’t try to memorize something.

In any case I would object to the idea that facts such as the one about Wordsworth and Beethoven are really so trivial. It all depends on what one does with that scrap of knowledge—potentially, at least, it seems to me highly significant—important, for example, for our understanding of the course of European culture from the mid- to late eighteenth century onwards. Moreover, simply knowing that tiny fact can be a stimulus to thought—can encourage us to try to think through the relation between different forms of art in the Romantic period, or even to think about what Wordsworth and Beethoven might have in common. (By the way, Hegel, the great philosopher of human freedom, was also born in 1770—yet more to think about!) It is interesting that our textbook, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, includes in its ‘Biographical Sketches’ such apparently insignificant items as Larkin’s having worked as a librarian, or Thomas Hardy’s having ‘specialized’, as a young architect, ‘in church restoration’. Larkin, of course, had an interesting relation to books (‘a load of crap’), and Hardy to churches and religion (see his superb poem ‘The Oxen’). I actually don’t know if TSE’s working in Lloyd’s bank is important for understanding his poetry—it might be. I wouldn’t, anyhow, like to declare it strictly irrelevant until I’d thought about it more. (Ezra Pound wanted him out of the bank, I know that.) In fact it would take some serious research and thinking to determine whether this fact is significant for understanding Eliot. By the way, I do find it worth knowing that so many Elizabethan poets were also soldiers. To realize that Sidney and Donne and Jonson all saw military service in the wars of religion is not only intrinsically interesting, it also provokes us to think about the ways in which their writing may or may not have been shaped by the period’s violent confessional strife. I can’t help but think that it was important for Keats’s poetry that he trained as a surgeon, and must have seen terrible human suffering in the course of his work—think of his letter on life as a ‘vale of soul-making’, in which he tries to find a way to justify suffering without reference to Heaven—he says that a world of circumstances and troubles is necessary in order to produce actual selves or souls rather than mere intelligences; or think of the images of illness and pain in the third stanza of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

Perhaps it is true that ‘the facts’ in and of themselves are not especially important. But my point is that the facts are never simply facts. They are always part of some larger pattern of meaning or connection. For instance, I find it amazing and important that Hardy was born in 1840—but went on writing up to the very year of his death, 1928. That means he was sixty in 1900!—most of his life he had lived as a Victorian—but he was to continue imagining and thinking into the era of mechanized warfare, aviation, and the motorcar. It is extraordinary to be reminded that Wordsworth lived well into the Victorian period—long, long after the heady and, for him, formative days of the French Revolution. How did he look back on those events? (There are clues in his autobiographical masterpiece The Prelude, which he kept revising as the years went on.) So, once again, the key thing is what one does with the facts—but you can’t do anything, it seems to me, without knowing them first.

To sum up then: I’m very much of the opinion that an education in the humanities does as a first step actually involve incorporating nuggets of hard knowledge into one’s own existence. The more one knows, the more one can think—the two capabilities, knowing and thinking, go together. Yes, one must avoid at all costs becoming a pedant (‘The Bookfull Blockhead, ignorantly read, / With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head’, as Pope had it)—but, for most of us, given that ars longa, vita brevis, ignorance is far the greater danger! In any case be assured that the exam is not intended to reward pedants, but simply to encourage students conscientiously to do the course as a whole, rather than simply focusing on the authors they wrote about in their essays.

I hope this helps, and that it explains some of the logic behind that part of the exam.

All best wishes,


Our first essay this week, ‘Erosion of the Will’, is by SRB contributing editor James Ley and deals with A Strangeness in My Mind, by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. In this essay, Ley sets Pamuk’s most recent novel in the broader context of his literary career, and particularly his writing on the city of Istanbul:

In his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City (2005), Orhan Pamuk writes of the Turkish concept of hüzün. The word is derived from Arabic and describes a condition of spiritual agony or grief that is akin to the Western concepts of melancholy and tristesse. Unlike those terms, however, hüzün does not simply refer to an individual state of being; it expresses a collective heartache, a communal languor generated by a shared sense of loss. This is the condition Pamuk ascribes to his home city. Its character and unique atmosphere are defined by the fact that it was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire but has become a rather shabby metropolis marked by the signs of its post-imperial decline and decay: ‘the hüzün of Istanbul,’ he states, ‘is something the entire city feels together and affirms as one.’

Christine Nichol’s Waiting for the Electricity provides the occasion for our second essay of the week, ‘The Power of Roses’, by Judith Armstrong. In 2003, Georgia was swept by political unrest, and the events of that year form the backdrop to Nichol’s novel, to which, as Armstrong writes, ‘history and hospitality are integral, as of course are themes as various as America, pipelines, gender, electricity and Hillary Clinton.’ She continues:

Past history is important because Georgians still imagine themselves as heroes of the 12th century, when 5,000 of them led by David the Builder vanquished 50,000 Persians; hospitality was then and still is endemic, because nothing and no one is more important than a guest. Guests are from God.

Kenneth Mackenzie’s 1937 novel, The Young Desire It, is the subject of this week’s essay from the SRB archive, by Peter Pierce. Here Pierce reckons with the critical fortunes of Mackenzie since his early death in 1955, noting that ‘the uncertainty about the manner of Mackenzie’s death is congruent with the fluctuations of his critical reputation’:

The Young Desire It is one of the most brilliant, confident and unusual instances of a Bildungsroman in Australian literature. Nor was it a flash of genius soon extinguished. Scores of poems and three more novels followed, besides extensive unpublished fiction. But how has Mackenzie fared in Australian literary history – noting his unconscionable omission from The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (2009)? What fresh claims have been made for and on him? On what basis has his work been reclaimed?