Learning by heart

by Rita Brügger

At the World Economic Forum 2016, participants of economy and politics were concerned about artificial intelligence. Their judgment: The fourth industrial revolution implicated much bigger changes than the foregone industrialisation. Machinery approached human beings increasingly and what latter had in his head was nothing else but a machine. This was a summary of a spokesperson provided on Saturday, 23 January on the economic broadcast “Trend” on Radio DRS 1.
Therefore, so the quintessence, within that fourth industrial revolution also the educational system was to be revolutionised.  For in the future easy operations disappeared, creativity, artificiality and occupations concerning humanity were in demand.
Most experts are unanimous about the fact that education will develop towards an even more important matter in future times what according to their opinion requires a complete alteration of our educational system. They claim it was stupid to learn, what machinery has mastery of. As an example, the learning by heart was mentioned.
Leaving aside the fact that school always has made progress and we are far from simply stubborn learning by heart I cannot help thinking about the following: If we do not want to surrender ourselves to the pure economic ideology and to technocracy, we are to understand how these machines function. It is crucial to be able to comprehend what how when and for what reason something is being stored and not at least in this field learning by heart along with comprehension is eminent. Additionally we should consider another aspect. Our resources are limited; techniques are meticulous and liable to mistakes. What, if this miraculous machinery will break down? If we will get short of energy, if crisis, wars increase and threaten our lives?
Then humanity and creativity is in demand. Nevertheless, according to the great pedagogue Pestalozzi, humans are holistic beings with head, hand and heart. All integrating education includes all aspects. We cannot leave out the cultural heritage of our ancestors but must consider it, when we think carefully about changes that are of course also authorised in schools and educational systems.
Additionally I want to tell an event to the learning by heart that in the radio broadcast had been described as obsolete and turned into ridicule: At senior meetings in the afternoon in the village, there is a monthly cosy gathering. One has a glass of good wine, eats something small and has a chat.
Ruth, a more than 80 year old farmer stands up modestly, positions herself in front of the people and asks: “Ischs rächt weni no öppis ufsäge?” (“Would you mind me to declaim something?”) The positive response follows instantly.
Often the woman recites a long poem, suiting the season and current events. Today she tells about the winter, like Johann Peter Hebel, poet, theologian, pedagogue (1760–1826) has recorded. She starts with the words:

“Isch echt do obe Bauwele feil?
Sie schütten eim e redli Theil
in d’Gärten aben un ufs Hus;
es schneit doch au, es isch e Gruus;
und ’s hangt no menge Wage voll
am Himmel obe, merki wol.”1

Therein the poet describes in an earnest and humoristic manner the winter with snow, until spring approaches again.
As quiet as a mouse is the atmosphere in the hall. Although many elderly visitors do not hear well anymore, everyone listens carefully to the voice that declaims an eight-verse poem as if she just read and memorised it for the first time.
What a treasure of knowledge has she acquired in her childhood, internalised and is now, after centuries, capable to create an atmosphere, which captures the audience’s imagination.
Of course, it is not a mere learning by heart, which comes into effect here. It is the content, the dealing with the text, the witnessing of the season winter. However, with the learning, which Ruth acquired at school then, and with the training of her memory she brings about something invaluable: She passes something to us that gives pleasure and conveys cultural values, which remain valid over the centuries.
By the way: prisoners for political reasons in the National Socialism often thought of texts committed to memory in order to draw themselves up mentally in these hard times.     •

1    Translator’s note: Goethe said: “Such a great poet should be only read in the original! One just needs to learn this language!” (“Alpha-Forum-extra: Stationen der Literatur: Johann Peter Hebel” (PDF) (in German). Alpha-Forum. Retrieved 8 June 2012)

(Translation Current Concerns)