July 19th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY / MERCHANTS OF SLEAZE: Sexualised marketing targets young girls

EDITORIAL: Throwing cold water on global warming

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: Australia's sovereignty at stake

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The economic costs of the Garnaut Report

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA Liberals sliding towards defeat

REGIONAL COMMUNITIES: Could an Asian regional grouping work?

EUTHANASIA: I'm not sick - can I commit suicide too?

UNITED STATES: Health care - America's shame

EDUCATION: What is the advantage of rote-learning?

SCHOOLS: Political correctness rules in the classroom

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Faith restored / Buyers' remorse / French resistance / New world disorder / Back to my favourite bête noire / America

Natasha Stott Despoja a trail-blazer? (letter)

Partial-birth abortion (letter)

BOOKS: THE CHINA FANTASY: Why capitalism will not bring democracy to China, by James Mann

DVD: APOCALYPSE? NO! Why global warming is not a crisis, by Christopher Monckton

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What is the advantage of rote-learning?

by Warren Reed

News Weekly, July 19, 2008
Has Western education gained anything worthwhile from jettisoning rote-learning? Warren Reed offers a cautionary lesson from the timeless East.

For those Australians lucky enough to have friends in their 80s or 90s, especially those with all their faculties, there's a lot to be observed and learnt about how our education system has changed. And not for the better.

My oldest friend is 98 and was born and brought up well away from Australia's big coastal cities. He enrolled at Sydney University in the mid-1920s and, while visiting Canberra in 1927 to play rugby against Duntroon Military College, attended the opening of the old Parliament House.

He's a highly articulate person with a memory that would put an elephant to shame. A Latin and Shakespeare buff, 80 years after his formal education, he can still quote - word-perfect - huge slabs of poetry, speeches and extracts from books and plays.


He also remembers and uses techniques he was taught at school for making quick mathematical calculations.

It's all very impressive. But while that's not uncommon in older people, it's not something you see too often in younger Australians.

Today, no one seems to be taught how to remember anything. Learning appears to be more for the moment and how you feel: is your urge to create - something, anything - stimulated? Gone are the frameworks that young people need to hang things on.

I recall a stint I had in the law faculty of Tokyo University 35 years ago, when foreign researchers were pretty thin on the ground. In a weekly meeting chaired by the dean (accorded almost divine status in Japan), an irreverent American mused aloud in Japanese about the rigidities of that country's education system. The dean hyperventilated.

"So you think your system has all of the finest attributes," he queried acerbically, "and ours, none?"

You could have heard a pin drop.

We all sat tight, especially the American.

"You see," the dean said, "you Westerners might think we Japanese are short on creativity, and, to a degree, you have a point. But in your eagerness to prove an either-or situation - that you're all good and we're bad - you overlook the inherent strengths in our system."

He continued: "True, we're big on rote-learning, but that's not just because we love robotic functions. It's because we know that it's that method that gives young people a structure into which to fit all that they learn. It also gives them a perspective, angles to see things from, even a sense of social and intellectual proportion. That's one attribute."

The American nodded. The explanation was clearly as much a critique of what the Western system lacked.

"And another," the dean went on, "is that, in this rote process that you have such a low opinion of, we put great emphasis on studying the classics, which in most cases are based on Chinese historical works. And, as you know, they're steeped in wisdom and strategy."

He cast an avuncular glance at the American, seeking acknowledgement of the point he had made.

Everybody nodded. It was the sort of deference that the dean commanded when he felt moved to elucidate something so rudimentary.

"What's that expression you have in English?" he asked, as though conversing with the picture of a crusty old Meiji professor on the wall. "Yes, 'method in madness'. I've always liked that turn of phrase. Perhaps that's what describes our approach best of all."

The Japanese language is exquisitely designed for sarcasm and I never fully appreciated what the British meant by "brutal subtlety" until I studied it.

"Our system might not be as conducive to creative thinking as it should be," the dean added, "but, if there's one thing it does do, it teaches students how to discipline their minds and order their thoughts."

He was right, not only in his context but in ours as well.

Learning spectrum

In the space of just a few generations Australians have moved from one end of the learning spectrum, where we actually shared a lot with the Japanese, to the other. What we seem to be doing in this country is equipping young people with handfuls of flesh to stick on a human model but failing to give them a skeleton to begin with.

By any measure, that's madness in method.

Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? The challenge is to strike an appropriate balance, one that provides Australians with the skills they need to survive in a world dominated by giants like China and India. Whether we know it or not, we're already engaged in a battle of wits and wills for the destiny we believe we're entitled to have. Education is vital to that.

- Warren Reed was one of the first wave of Australians to spend key formative years studying, thinking and working in cultures in the region that are very different from our own.

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