Learn by heart with your heart

“Man becomes man only by the intelligence, but he is man only by the heart.” - Henri-Frederic Amiel

I always had trouble learning things by heart. Yet I believe I have a pretty good memory… The most distressing memory of not managing to remember something by heart was to recite this Vietnamese poem as a kid. I really wanted to recite it, I wanted my mum to be proud, and put effort in learning it but failed miserably.

Now I have kids, I wonder whether I should teach them to learn things by heart. I look in my past to seek answers.

Distant learning

First I did distant learning during 2 years when I was a teenager. My aunt, who adopted me so that I can grow up in France, wanted me to get to know my parents, to learn and practice Vietnamese. That’s how I ended up living and studying 2 years in Vietnam. Back then, the Lycée Français was maybe too expensive or not up to the expectations of my aunt, and in any case, my elder sister managed it well before me: my aunt chose to enrol me on the CNED program, which means distant learning. How did it work? I received regular study books, to read and learn by myself and every 2 or 3 weeks, I had to send back assignments in the form of papers mostly, sometimes audio recording, that I was suppose to do at home in real exams conditions.

The side effect of this system is that, although I was quite a serious student, I “cheated” most of the time, writing all the dissertations with my study books wide open instead of having them close as it would happen during a normal test or exam. So I rarely had to learn by heart anything. When I came back in France for my 10th grade, I had very poor marks in History and Geography. And the reason being that I never learnt the facts by heart, so I couldn’t use them in my dissertations: the date of a treaty, the name of a general, the export activities of a country, its population, etc.

The man commandline

Given those poor records in the humanity and economic fields, I ended up studying engineering and computer science in university. My world shifted the day I did my first assignment using one of those university Sparc UNIX machines: I had to write a shell script. I discovered the wonderful “man” command: “man” as in manual. I realized I didn’t have to bother remembering all the options of complex instructions to deal with regular expressions and such. I didn’t even have to know the name of the instruction, I could simply list all the instructions available. The manual provided examples and detailed documentation. It was before Google, it was already more important to learn the process of getting to the right information rather that to learn the end result.

I since then value a lot my time in distant learning. Back then nobody in my family was fluent enough in French to help me with my homework. This time taught me a great deal of autonomy and capacity to look for information (there was no Internet back then!). I like to think it taught me early on the skills to live in a world where knowledge is abundant and accessible, the skills I think are important for every kid nowadays.

Intellectual challenge

Yet as a kid, I actually much enjoyed the challenge of learning things by heart. I used to study Latin, and I remember I had great fun putting a song/game together with a friend to recite the conjugation of irregular latin verbs: learning with rhythm and pace turned out easier. Back in my 6th grade, I also had to learn all the French departments with their numbers and main city. I was very excited I scored the maximum mark on that test. And still nowadays, I’m happy I know this way my geography of France.

I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of it, as much as I liked and still like puzzles and word games.

Challenging the heart

Of all the things I learned by heart at school, there’s yet one poem that I still do (almost) know by heart, it’s the beautiful Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. Our English teacher gave us as a test to recite this poem in the class, and I remember I could actually recite that one. Despite the anxiety of not being able to learn by heart, this poem made his way through my heart.

My (adopting) mum is turning 85 this year and she has the usual memory issues of the elders. But yet she also recalls very long Vietnamese poetry that she used to learn by heart when she was young. I can see this actually provides her great joy to be able to remember these.

I believe that when we learn something by heart such as poetry and we find something beautiful that resonates in ourselves, then we actually learn with our heart. As for my kids, I will not ask them to learn anything by heart, I’ll let them find their own fun in it. Eventually, they won’t be afraid of not being as good as computers in learning by heart to recall knowledge, they’ll learn by heart with their hearts to remind themselves that they are human.