The Return to Rote

The Education Ministry's announcement that high schoolers will have to learn to recite poetry has sparked heated controversy among veteran educators and writers.

The recent wave of nostalgia for the education of days gone by has not skipped over rote learning. Given the criticism of the education system and the failure of local students in international tests, there is a certain yearning for that old kind of teaching, for the methods that relied on a firm but loving hand, and produced intelligent pupils who respected their teachers - and usually also their parents. Consequently, in a somewhat reflexive manner, in recent years some of the formalities that characterized the education system in the state's early years have been adopted again, such as standing when a teacher enters the classroom or wearing school uniforms. It has recently been announced that starting next year, the Ministry of Education will require high school students to memorize poems for their matriculation exams.

Perhaps because of the commotion caused by announcement of this move, poet and scholar Hamutal Bar-Yosef, the professor who heads the Ministry of Education's committee on literature, is seeking to downplay its significance. She says the recommendation is for students to memorize a total of five poems for the matriculation exam, subject to the teacher's discretion. This is a marginal issue in terms of the curriculum, she stresses, which should not be blown up out of proportion.

Nevertheless, it seems that the idea of the return of rote learning to the curriculum is prompting much interest among academics and intellectuals, and nostalgia among some who remember childhoods that included this type of learning.

Those in favor of memorizing texts see it as something worth reviving - as an asset that has played a vital role in instilling Western culture and Jewish tradition in children throughout the years. In contrast, opponents stress the automatic dimension that rote learning represents and a fear that it highlights social gaps. Over the entire controversy hovers the question of whether this type of learning is needed and appropriate for children in the current era, and whether coercion will actually bring high-schoolers closer to the texts - or alienate them.

Poet Asher Reich recalls from his ultra-Orthodox childhood in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood that rote learning "was a way of life," as he puts it. It was inculcated among other ways by reading the weekly Torah portion on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to Saturdays, which is the usual time when it is recited.

Reich believes that memorization is "a very important method of learning," and bemoans the fact that "post-modern educational theories have rejected it." According to him, "children have a receptive, open mind and it is easy for them to absorb. If I know or like something from my ultra-Orthodox life, it is that from the day I could read, I learned and memorized the prayers. All of this knowledge was preserved for days to come. Some say that if you make students memorize things, they will hate poetry. But they don't hate it."

Actress Shany Cohen as Keshet Lieblich
Actress Shany Cohen as Keshet Lieblich on “A Wonderful Country.” You get her to memorize Bialik.

Two ninth-grade students in Jerusalem, who say they like literature, were not at all upset by the idea of memorizing a few poems. One said: "It doesn't seem to me to be a problem to learn a few poems by heart, and if it adds points to the matriculation exam grade - it's a net profit." According to her friend, "it's easy, because when you review a poem in class, you already memorize it after having gone over it so many times."

But it is uncertain whether these apparently literature-loving girls are a representative sample of their contemporaries. Keshet Lieblich, the teenager character appearing in "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country" ) may be an exaggerated and grotesque person, but she is not at all disconnected from reality. You try and get her to study Bialik by heart.

The fact is that the memory does not work the same way in everyone. Dr. Zvia Walden, an expert in literacy at Beit Berl Teachers Training College and at Ben-Gurion University, presents a complex position. On one hand, she fears that rote learning will become a new means for assessing students.

"If a person knows something by heart, that is excellent," she says, "especially if they are fine texts from the canon. The question is: What is the price of learning the text by memory. There are some children who have a very hard time doing this and that must also be taken into account. It is impossible to put them at a disadvantage when it comes to grades."

Walden adds: "There is a longing these days for everything that was, as if it was the best. But that's not always the way it is."

On the other hand, Walden believes that rote learning can be of value if it is done in the right way and updated to suit our times.

"Written language," she notes, "is different from everyday language. It is more precise; it has rare forms of usage and a certain vocabulary and was developed by illustrious authors. When you memorize something, its written language seeps into the everyday language and settles there." According to Walden, when you just read a text, it does not have the same effect: "Reading is a one-time matter. When you memorize a poem, it becomes an asset."

What about Google?

In the past, memorization was a tool for what can be called the democratization of knowledge. Prof. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew literature department of Hebrew University explains that, throughout Jewish and general world history, literacy rates were not high. Most people were illiterate, but thanks to rote learning could still be people of culture. Jews, for example, knew prayers, traditions, Aggadah (non-legal exegetical texts ).

Shinan: "From the first century B.C.E. to the ninth century C.E., the transmission of the written tradition was elitist. The writers were scholars who transcribed and wrote things down. The rest, the people of Israel, transmitted traditions orally," he says.

In European culture hundreds of years ago, there was also a lot of memorization, he adds. Reciting poetry was common because printed materials were rare and expensive. Progressive educational methods in recent times, which place the child in the center of learning, have seemingly turned memorization into a symbol of a conservative educational method that is becoming obsolete. Today, Shinan is asked, when knowledge is so accessible and is as far away as a click on the Google search engine - what value is there in memorization?

According to him, Google is not enough. "The text is not really accessible today," he says. "The book sits in the library or on Google and most kids or adults don't make the effort to take it out." He believes that memorization should also be used for Bible studies, but "this should not simply be memorization of texts like a parrot, but based on an understanding of the work and of its cultural context."

Hebrew literature professor Ariel Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University is also a big advocate of reciting poetry. In an article praising memorization published in Haaretz a few years ago, he argued that learning a poem by heart is the deepest way of learning it. It is essentially its fulfillment. It is the act that coincides with a poem's demand for timelessness. It is a type of engraving, but its stone is the living consciousness. What could be more complex than this combination? In this way, Hirschfeld explained, the poem is "transformed" in the consciousness into a spatial experience, and is observed by the mind from inside and outside as one, as if it were a three-dimensional object.

Given the benefits of memorization, Walden and Bar-Yosef argue that the biggest question is how to go about introducing it in the school system again. They both feels that it should not be imposed as a decree, but that ways should be found to endear this method to students.

"Perhaps it is possible to start with poems that have been put to music or are otherwise familiar," suggests Bar-Yosef. "I would also be happy if there were poetry reading performances and competitions in the schools. And why shouldn't television get involved? It could be entertaining."