It’s important to learn by heart… sometimes

Memorize what you need in order to avoid stupid memorization. The Latin tests at the French baccalauréat are the dumbest thing possible. In the curriculum, the number of teaching hours in Latin has shrunk to a ridiculous point. It is no longer possible to teach the grammar seriously, and the teachers are discouraged to do it, because rote memorization looks so stupid and the students won’t use that language in their daily life. But the Latin grammar is very complex, very demanding and obsolutely necessary to understand a text. Nothing is as intuitive as in Asian languages for instance (Asian languages have their difficulties too, but not so much in grammar). Latin has complex declension and conjugation. The order of the words isn’t very significant. In general, the Latin structures are substantially different from the modern languages that derive from it, such as French or Italian. So, the students are absolutely unable to translate anything by themselves. Instead of it, they are tested on a short list of texts they have studied during their final year (terminale) and they remake the translation provided by the teacher in class. Because we don’t make them learn the declination by heart, they learn by heart what they should do by themselves. Sometimes a bad student even recites the translation for the wrong text!

Memorization is an important part of understanding. Understanding is often nothing else than recognizing a previously known pattern. It’s associating new things to ancient ones. You put words that you already know, on a new situation. The more vocabulary you already have, the more you’ll be able to describe a new and complex problem. A young child speaks of many things with the same words. The lamp, the bulb, the power switch, all of those are “the light”. With time, he will be able to distinguished the differents objects. He will understand the causation, and eventually a few thinks about electricity. The vocabulary is efficient only if it is known with precision and without hesitation. It’s not enough to have seen the words somewhere in a book. We need to recognize them immediately with the precise meaning they have in a precise context. You need to memorize them thoroughly.

You learn to make knowledge as natural as possible. When you first learn how to drive a car, you look at a chart that explains how the pedals and lever work. At the end, you don’t even think about them, you just act. It’s absolutely essential that you do no longer think about the trivial gestures. You don’t have time to remember which pedal is the brake and which is the gas. If you hesitate, you’re dead. The first time you do a multiplication, you have to think a lot. You need to understand the meaning of the operation. You need to solve difficult problems to be sure that a multiplication is actually what you have to do. But at the end of your learning, you do no longer use the highest orders of thinking (to use Bloom’s taxonomy), if you need to know how much 3 dozens of eggs cost. You just write the correct answer. You know from memory that you have to do one or several multiplications and you only have to remember the result of such multiplications. Save some cognitive power to do more interesting stuff. The very same exercise requires a lot of reflection at the beginning, but with enough practice, it doesn’t need any reflection at all. When you’re really good at math, you don’t think anymore to multiply 28 by 0.25. You just write the answer. And you can spend your time trying to understand integrals and derivatives.

Bloom’s taxonomy is very often used to define pedagogical objectives. Creating, evaluating and analyzing are the highest orders of thinking.

Creativity itself is not some kind of magical skill. We usually think that great authors have some special abilities that make them different from the common mortals. Many of them have nourished this myth accross history to make themselves important. They listen to Mentor or to Egeria. They get some mystical inspiration from Appolo or whatever god you may think of. They pretend to have visions. They learn from the Muses! In fact, the most useful feature is literacy. Let’s take some of the most successful stories in fantasy: the works of Tolkien or G.R.R. Martin, and the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. The authors seem to have a lot of imagination, because they write about what are basically imaginary worlds. But in reality, we could easily track down all the key features of their imaginary worlds in the previous literature or in history.

Let’s begin with the Lord of the Rings. The magical ring that Bilbo finds in a damp cave has at least two obvious sources. We think immediately of the Ring of the Nibelungen, an old German legend. The ring made with the gold of the Rhine river gives power to its bearer but corrupts his heart. It’s kept by a dragon, Fafnir, who has accumulated a huge amount of gold and lives in a very deep cave. Do you recognize anything? The German tale provides also the idea of the broken sword that is reforged by the hero. The other main source of inspiration is the ring of Gyges, a story told by the philosopher Plato in the Republic. In a cave, how surprising, a man who is basically nothing as he’s a shepherd, finds an invisibility ring. In Plato’s work, this tale is meant to answer this question: do we behave because we love the good or because we fear the punishment? In the tale, Gyges, who can become invisible at will, is assured to escape any form of justice. He sleeps with the queen, kills the king and takes his place. The invisibility ring is in essence a ring of power and a source of corruption, which are exactly the key attributes of the ring in Tolkien’s work. In case you were wondering, it’s absolutely obvious from his academic background, that Tolkien knew about the two references. After all, he was a great Philology teacher. And I will not tell you about the Celtic material or the Bible.

G.R.R. Martin has a very deep knowledge of the strategic theory. He’s a good reader of Machiavel, Sunzi and the ancient latin strategists (Frontinus, Caesar and so on). Of course he has understood Clausewitz, and probably many others I was not able to identify. He’s very knowledgeable in politics, from a theoretical and a historical point of view. His erudition in history is very deep, especially the late Roman Empire, the Hundred Years War and the war of the two Roses. He’s read Maurice Druon’s les Rois maudits and also a lot of things about religion.

A proven way to invent a story.

Why is Dungeons and Dragons so good to provide for RPG scenarios? Because it’s a ready-made world, with an incredible complexity and some well-known places. Apart from the map itself, the universe of the Forgotten Realms is deeply rooted in various mythologies. They constitute an easy and proven way to find the elements of a good fantasy story. The bestiary is taken from various sources but always very recognizable. The trolls, the elves, the kobolds and many other beings come from the ancient germanic sagas. A big source for the most powerful and exotic monsters is India: the rakshasas, the nagas and many others. The greek part is not neglected, although it doesn’t take as much space as it could: minotaurs, medusas and so on. There are also monsters from the Kabbal, for instance the Golem, a key feature of any good story, as it is the artificial monster made by a proud wizard. Not to neglect the gods of the ancient Middle East, such as Baal and Dagon. If you’re interested in various mythologies, I strongly recommend this book. It’s in French, but there is certainly something similar in English.

A student who has to write a story feels much relieved when he understands that he can mobilize his knowledge instead of complying to the tyranny of imagination. And he will eventually invent deeper, more interesting and more original stories. In realilty, creative people are able to cross effectively a large variety of sources, with logic and deep feelings.

There is no contradiction at all between memory and intelligence. Only bad teachers can introduce an artificial contradiction. It works in both ways. Rote memorization as the sole way to learn is just doing half the job. Despising memorization because of the excess of rote memorization is building out of thin air. It achieves nothing in the long run. It’s like having a good recipe but no ingredients. You need to feed the spirit in a very concrete way, with stories, with legends, with facts.

So, read a lot on every subject. Curiosity is a virtue.

It may seem futile to learn the map of an imaginary world or a constructed language, but in a way, it’s still food for the mind.


  1. Hmmm… Pour le manque de travail des latinistes français, l’affaire est compliquée.

    Les incitations de base sont mauvaises. Les élèves n’ont pas été habitués au travail rigoureux dans les années précédentes. Au moment où ils abordent le latin, il est trop tard, ou trop tôt, pour mettre en place de telles habitudes. Le latin est aussi vendu comme une option qui permet de gagner des points facilement, ou comme une curiosité, pas comme une langue. “On peut faire de la civilisation?”

    Pas sûr d’ailleurs que le nombre d’heures disponibles permettent un enseignement sérieux de la langue.
    Il existe certes des dispositifs un peu plus efficaces que le cours classique pour faire travailler les élèves sur les structures de langue, mais ça ne change rien au fait qu’on n’a pas le temps de mettre en place des habitudes langagières.

    En plus, les manuels habituels ne sont pas vraiment conçus pour ça. Il faudrait taper dans les manuels anciens (prévus pour 3 heures par semaine ou plus) ou dans les manuels étrangers (par exemple Orberg).

  2. Je détestais mon prof, qui était très dur. 😀

    Si j’ai parlé de ma propre expérience, c’est parce que j’ai appris l’anglais, l’allemand (sans grand succès pour l’allemand) et l’espagnol à l’école, puis le grec, et quelques autres langues européennes en dehors de l’école, que je parle ou je lie ou je baragouine vaguement, selon les langues.

    Le fait est qu’en latin, comme on donne systématiquement les temps primitifs du verbe, il n’y a pas de verbes irréguliers à apprendre pour l’élève. C’est d’ailleurs la seule langue où j’ai échappé à la corvée (nécessaire). Partant de là, les terminaisons sont tout le temps les mêmes, pas de piège, les verbes bizarres sont super rares (même “avoir” et “faire” sont dans les clous, il n’y a guère qu’être et vouloir / ne pas vouloir / préférer qui font à leur guise), là où rien qu’en français, pour conjuguer le présent, d’un groupe à l’autre, ou dans le fourre-tout du 3e groupe, mes collégiens ne s’en sortent pas. 😉

    pour le déclinaisons, et le reste, en revanche, je te suis totalement.

    Dans mon cas, on est d’ailleurs surtout dans un problème d’incapacité de travail et de manque de rigueur des élèves ; j’ai beau leur dire de mille fois de ne pas prendre les mots dans l’ordre, de regarder les terminaisons… peine perdue.

  3. Chouette article.
    J’aurais un léger bémol sur la conjugaison latine qui, de toutes les langues que j’ai croisées, m’a demandé le moins d’apprentissage par cœur (les terminaisons et marques de différents temps sont très peu nombreuses, le reste est tout carré).
    Je ne connaissais pas la pyramide.

    Tu m’as donné des arguments pour expliquer ma pensée beaucoup plus clairement face aux élèves qui demandent toujours “à quoi ça sert ?”

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