Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 18 Mar 2010

Is there any real value in learning poetry by heart? Are the Tories right to want it back in schools?

Hillary's Advice

I love those fragments of The Waste Land and Frost At Midnight that drift around in my brain and there’s no doubt that having a whole mental poetry anthology would be handy were one ever to be taken hostage in Baghdad but, to be honest, I simply don’t know if re-introducing learning poetry by heart would be a good use of classroom time, or simply an exercise in nostalgia brought in by those who swear that memorising Invictus and If made them the men they are today.

The problem is that there is so much learning that children need to get through to master the modern world, and also that children – and teachers – of the internet age tend to see little point in point of learning things by rote when those same things are always just a mouse click away. Also, I can’t think of anything more gruesome, as a child, than being made to cram a government-approved poem into my brain by a teacher without a spark of poetry in their soul, who has been instructed to do so by the national curriculum.

On the other hand, young brains love the challenge of mental learning, they are deeply enriched by contemplating truth and beauty, and can grow strong roots of thought and understanding via slow and concentrated attention. So, yes, maybe on second thoughts – and in the right hands -- learning a few poems by heart could be just what today’s distracted pupils need.