Mnemosyne and the wiring of the brain

To look at—for example—the Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to be reminded that Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses. Shakespeare does not merely remember the material that he has read in Plutarch’s Theseus, Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Golding’s translation of The Metamorphoses, and other works including some of Erasmus; he has remembered and retained the words that they use, and has taken and woven them into a confection that readers and hearers marvel at. Shakespeare is a lover of words with a fervent memory.

There has been research at the University of Seattle into how children’s brains operate in the early years. It seems to confirm the theory that the human brain, after the manner of a computer, possesses an application which one might call My Brain: this is preprogrammed to wire the brain around the age of three, according to what data and stimuli it has received up to that point, and how it has been operating. So the brain of an Inuit child will be wired differently from that of a child in the Amazonian rainforest, or a child living in London.

This has actuated the Seattle researchers’ recommendation that children should not watch television before the age of three.

A further theory is that the brain is programmed to do this again—to rewire itself—at some time during adolescence. This is borne out by what I have observed, startlingly in the case of some pupils, and it confirms what I was told as a young teacher: that the habit of memorizing things and acquiring vocabulary is vital to a person’s further development. For if memorizing is an habitual activity of the brain, it will be incorporated in that teenage rewiring, and the power of memory will develop further.

Next post: The schwa.

The usefulness of Classics: part two

Until the 1960s, language and literature held a far more conspicuous place in our educational system than they do now: they dominated the curriculum. The reason for this was explained in a lecture at Cambridge in the spring of 1880, given by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Training Colleges:

‘Speech we know is the one characteristic distinction of humanity. Every word that has been invented is the record of some fact or thought, and furnishes the means by which facts or thoughts can be transmitted to others. In a sense, every new word represents a conquest of civilisation, a distinct addition to the intellectual resources of the world. To become acquainted with words, in their full significance, is to know much about the things they represent, and about the thoughts which other people have had respecting those things. The enlargement of our vocabulary, whether it be in English or any other language, means the enlargement of our range of thought and the acquisition of new material of knowledge. Moreover, the words we use… are the very instruments with which we think. We are unable to conceive of any regular consecutive thinking,—any advance from what is known to what is unknown—except by the agency of language. Whatever therefore gives precision and method to our use of words, gives precision to our thoughts… Such reasons as these underlie the very general assumption that a sound and liberal education should pay special regard to the study of language.’

In other northern European countries, children are reading material from the best literature and learning language as the medium and foundation of human activity. In English schools, the study of how language works has begun to disappear, and the reading of literature has shrunk until teachers use it as a tool for personal and social development and to reinforce adolescent culture.

The study of Latin and Greek continues to offer precision, method and the intellectual resources of Classical literature.

Next post: have modern languages been shafted?