Peter Jones

A lesson from St Jerome

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The educational bien pensants are up in arms because Michael Gove wants children at primary school to learn their times-tables not in ‘real-life contexts’ but ‘by rote’. The ancients, whose education was thoroughlpractical, had no problems with rote at all.

Take St Jerome. In ad 403 he wrote a letter to Laeta, instructing her on how to teach her daughter Paula to read and write. Laeta must get Paula a set of letters, made of boxwood or ivory, and call them by their proper names. Paula must be encouraged to play with them and get used to their shapes and names. Then she must learn their right order — a rhyme may help her to do this — but in order that she can also recognise them by sight, Laeta must constantly disarrange them and ask Paula to identify which is which and put them in the right order.

When it comes to writing, Laeta must guide Paula’s hand as she writes, or draw an outline of the letters for her to copy. Paula must be offered prizes for good spelling, and competition with friends must be encouraged, so that she can see how good spellers are rewarded. Nor must the learning be haphazard, but purposeful, e.g. knowing ‘the names of the prophets or apostles or patriarchs from Adam downwards contained in Matthew and Luke’.

Further, ‘you must not scold her if she is slow to learn, but praise her: that will delight her when she does better than others and annoy her when she does not. Most of all, you must make sure that she does not take against her lessons, in case that dislike continue into later years.’

This was the pattern of good ancient education: plenty of encouragement to end up actually knowing things that were useful. Clearly this is not a pattern approved of by modern educationists. But since for most pupils ‘real-life context’ is buying things, one would have thought that knowing the times-table off by heart was a rather useful means to an end. If pupils are not able to live up to the educationist ideal — and many will not be — at least they have a memory that can be put to good mathematical use. What on earth can be anti-educational or unconstructive about that?