Unwritten past

I started primary school in September 1965. Long Sutton Primary School, where I spent the first eighteen months of my education, was probably typical of most small rural primary schools in England.

In infant class, pupils were given blackboard slates and chalk for our writing. I attracted the displeasure of the teacher in requiring pencil and paper because the chalk dust aggravated my asthma. Our learning was predominantly memorising, often it was simply learning by rote.

The teaching and learning we experienced was not so different from the teaching and learning of centuries. The medieval universities set the example for other educational institutions to follow. People came to listen and to discuss and to remember. Teachers and pupils alike might be able to recall lengthy they had learned.

What happened to that medieval capacity for remembering? Has our ability to remember become so reduced?

Even in classical times, in the days of Plato, there were concerns that the human faculty for remembering was in decline. Socrates tells a story of a conversation between Thamus and Theuth in ancient Egypt. Theuth has come to Thamus with inventions that include the invention of writing and Thamus is concerned that writing will damage the memories of those who use it.

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

It is extraordinary that two and a half thousand years ago Socrates regarded the most obvious of our aides memoire, one that we have for centuries assumed to be a matter of common sense, as something that would damage the human capacity for wisdom.

In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the return to school next week brings challenges about the use of books, about how lessons are to be taught, about how materials can be used. It would be a step too far to suggest stepping back into a past where everything was not about writing, but it is a reminder that there is more than one way of learning.


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