So often I have heard this phrase. I have heard it on the lips of pupils, in the form of a complaint. ‘This exam is just a memory test’, they exclaim, when it occurs to them that they are actually going to have to learn some things by heart. For the last two years, their knowledge has remained vague and fuzzy. Now the exams are looming, and they realise that they really need to know something. Although not very much, of course, given the content-lite nature of most of our current public examinations.
I’ve heard the phrase on the lips of teachers too, in an apologetic tone of voice. ‘Some of it is just a memory test, actually,’ they explain to pupils or parents as the exams approach, embarrassed to have to admit that there really are facts which must be remembered.
Would we ever apply this phrase, in this tone of voice, to driving theory tests? Are we embarrassed that candidates must actually remember the meanings of important traffic signs and rules of the road? Or how about medical exams? Is it embarrassing to admit that medical students must memorise a large body of knowledge concerning diseases and their symptoms? Would we have much confidence in a doctor who depended on his ‘transferable skills’, and assured us that, in this day and age, he could just look up our symptoms on his smartphone? No, we want someone like House, with an encyclopaedic knowledge ready in his mind.
But there are things of importance to learn. Knowing who Julius Caesar is might not be a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of inclusion or exclusion from full participation in society, because ignorance of core knowledge like this will exclude young people from understanding or producing serious writing, or having serious conversations, of any kind. And just as ordinary people are able to master the highway code for the serious business of driving, ordinary people are able to master core knowledge for the serious business of communication. Humanity is not divided into different castes, some of whom will never ‘cope’ with such information. It’s simply a matter of realising that it actually matters.When it really matters, we recognise that knowledge must be mastered; it must be memorised. Why do so many people think this is unimportant in the study of academic subjects at school? Could it be that they don’t really think there is anything of importance to learn in these subjects? And if they do think that, for what are we wasting so much time and money on delivering them?