Tuesday, January 14, 2020



John Burnet (1863-1928), Ignorance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), pp. 11-12:
When I was at school we certainly thought it 'beastly', as we called it, that we should have to learn such things as irregular verbs by heart. On the other hand, it was not particularly laborious for us at that age, and we could more or less see the use of it. It was clearly the way to get the power of reading Homer and Virgil without constant interruption, and I honestly believe that most of us enjoyed that. Of course we should not have dreamed of confessing it to one another, and still less of admitting it to 'old so-and-so', our master, who was doing the best he could for us with scant hope of reward and no expectation of gratitude. To do so would have violated that mysterious schoolboy code, which is not only a beneficent provision of nature to protect society from juvenile prigs, but springs from a native instinct of the young Soul to preserve the solitude so needful for the growth of its inner life. Of course the time came later when we were ready to admit, very shyly at first, to one another that we did like Homer and Virgil, but at first we were quite content to learn our irregular verbs. There is no great mystery in that. Mere memorizing comes natural to the young, and it does not matter at all whether they understand what they memorize or not. Children have always invented things—counting-out rhymes and the like—the main purpose of which is to be memorized. Think of the undying popularity of The House that Jack Built. We may say, indeed, that they have a passion for rigmarole, and small boys retain a great deal of this. One would think that our educational system would take advantage of that, and so it does in matters of absolute necessity like the multiplication table.
Id., pp. 14-15:
For the grown man, of course, grammar may be one of the most dangerously fascinating studies, but for the boy it is just what I have called the sediment of dead knowledge, to be acquired as speedily as may be for the sake of its results and not for itself. This is quite understood in many other branches of training. It is really a good deal easier to read Homer than it is to play the piano, and yet the proportion of people who learn to play the piano, at least to their own satisfaction, is far greater than that of those who learn to read Homer. In this case every one can see that the first thing to be done is to acquire the necessary automatism, and the methods of acquiring it have been more or less systematized. If you had to think of every chord, you would never play anything. On the other hand, no one imagines that the traditional scales and exercises are music. They are simply practice, directed to the acquisition of automatic power, and that is how grammar should be treated at school. It is an historical fact that, when this method was followed, a large number of people did acquire the power of reading Homer, and that a very considerable number continued to read him all their days.

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