Springingtiger's Blog


As a former pupil of Giggleswick School I am sent Gig: News, the magazine that keeps us in touch with the school. As well as news, it always contains plenty of reminiscence, which stirs my own memories of a childhood which grows happier the further I am removed from it. The latest edition contained a report of the quincentenary OG Day chapel service, which reminded me of having to learn the hymns for the end of term service which, in tribute to the former pupils who served in two World Wars, took place in blackout conditions. I was amused and pleased when the words of “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” sprang without effort to my mind after forty years. I, personally, loved the end of term service and always found it moving and magical, learning the hymns was a small price to pay. Of course, back then learning by rote was common, I still have fragments of poems learned nearly half a century ago immovably fixed in my memory.

I have cause to be grateful for the religious life of Giggleswick. When, freed from the discipline of Gig, my university career fell apart I sank into one of my periodic, debilitating, depressions. For a period the only thing that held me together were remembered pieces of the “Book of Common Prayers and from “Hymns: Ancient and Modern”, they were all that kept me from surrendering to utter despair. However it was not the beliefs behind the words that sustained me, but rather, the beauty and familiarity of the words themselves; were it not for the ten years of repetition in the school chapel that fixed the words in my mind, I doubt I would be alive today.

Today we tend not to learn pieces of writing by heart as we used, but I am inclined to the opinion that it was useful discipline that extended beyond the chapel or the classroom. I suppose it may be argued that rather than fill our heads with information, we can substitute Google for memory. To some extent it’s a valid point that we don’t need information as long as we know how to access it, it is better to know “how” rather than “what”. Just as we learn how to perform mathematical calculations rather than memorise the answers to all possible sums, it is better to learn systems rather than facts. However there may come a time when one is cut off from the internet or the library, and the only place to which one can turn for answers is one’s own mind; that is when one will be glad to have more on which to draw than systems. There is a value in remembered stories, poems, songs, and dramatic scripts, the building bricks of our culture. The memory is a tool which if not used becomes rusty and when needed may fail. Remembering should be practised and the use of memory taught to our children.


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A lot of things I learned [by rote] at school I find I still retain. Things like the “times tables” I use on a daily basis and there’s really no practical substitute for just knowing the results of multiplication for small numbers. Retaining details of history and literature also makes reading novels a much richer experience because it allows me to recognise references to a wider corpus. I can’t see how you could replicate that experience without simply being aware of a body of information beyond the immediate context.

Memory is an amazing faculty and, like most skills, memorisation requires practice to achieve competence. I agree that it is a necessary — perhaps even vital — skill and there ought to be more emphasis on teaching it in our schools.

Comment by bjforshaw

I agree we need to teach memory. My fear is that only after society losses the skill will it realise how much it needs it.

Comment by springingtiger

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