There seems to be two extremes in education today when it comes to the role that memorization plays in the instruction of children. On the one hand, modern education disdains the idea of rote memory and says that it takes away one’s creativity. However, this philosophy is inconsistent, because students are then asked to memorize names, events, definitions, and spelling words for a test. And the next day, much of that information is forgotten anyway.
On the other end of the spectrum, the renewal of classical education has brought memorization to the forefront as a primary method for teaching elementary-age children. I am quite familiar with classical education, since I spent over ten years involved with that model. I must admit it is quite impressive to hear children recite the names of important people, dates, events and places. Parents are impressed with the “knowledge” their children have, the children are proud of what they “know,” and everyone seems to be happy. I am not here to demean the modern or classical education model, but I want to show why their methods of memorization do not fit with a Mason model of education. People want to be eclectic in their approach to education, which is their prerogative, but as Mason said, “I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering not ‘more or less,’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated (Vol. 6, p.19).”
I want to mention three reasons why I believe the memorization of facts do not fit into a Mason model of education. The first reason is that facts are dead and require no effort on the part of the learner. Although kids may enjoy rote memory for a while, they are not being fed life-sustaining ideas. “We feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful (Vol.6, p.26).” Mason did not believe in spoon-feeding children information. She said, “Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses (Vol. 6, p.40).”
Another reason memorizing facts is not part of a Mason education is because “efforts to memorize weaken the power of attention, the proper activity of the mind (Vol.6, p.17).” Mason said that if children know that the subject matter will be repeated, they will not pay attention. Lessons should be done in a manner so that children are aware of their responsibility to learn. If we agree with Mason that “attention is the hallmark of an educated person,” we will want to make sure our lessons are structured in such a way to require students’ attentiveness and participation as active learners.
The third reason why a Mason education does not promote the memorization of facts is because Mason held to a different definition of knowledge than other models of education. She said, “Knowledge is not instruction, information, scholarship, a well-stored memory. It is passed like the light of the torch, from mind to mind, and the flame can be kindled at original minds only (Vol.6, p.303).” Children who equate knowledge with knowing lists of people, scientific terms and historical events can come to the conclusion that knowledge is something to possess, something static, something that can be obtained efficiently and with urgency. Mason said that no information becomes knowledge until it is acted upon by the mind in some form of narration. She talked negatively about former teaching methods that had students memorize grammar rules and lists of names and dates, since things learned in this way were rejected by the minds of students. Mason went on to say that the educational model of her day was to over-explain everything to students and be the interpreter of knowledge (Vol.6, p.246). Mason understood that a teacher’s summary or explanation should not come between the student and the text-whether it’s a book, poem, work of art, or something found in nature.
In a fast paced society we want to multi-task and accomplish as much as we can as fast as we can. In our education methods, we need to fight against those tendencies and be an example to our children of how we view time, how we view knowledge, and how we view our students as persons to be respected. A Mason education takes the time to reflect, to listen, and to wait on the child to make connections. As the U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reminds us, “Although teaching and learning themselves have been motorized by the hyper-pace of information, it is good to remember that the true tempo of education has always involved a deceleration.”
One of the arguments that I’ve heard for encouraging the memorization of facts is that children are like sponges and memorize more easily than adults. It is said that this is the prime time to get everything in their minds, even if they don’t understand it. However, the argument could be made that the ability for children to memorize is not so much due to their age, but the fact that they have the time and routines in their life to do so. William Michael, the director of Classical Liberal Arts Academy, views the idea of having children cram in all their facts while they are in a certain stage as both a misunderstanding of classical education and a misunderstanding of child development.
The ironic thing is that with Mason’s methods, when the focus is off memorizing and repeating information, a student will actually commit many names and dates to memory through their ability to attend and narrate the lessons. This can be attested from the list of 213 proper nouns that were included on an examination from a 13-year-old girl (Vol. 6. p. 294).
So what do we want to fill our children’s minds with? Their minds should savor the rich imagery of poetry, the life-transforming words of Scripture, fascinating accounts from history, and hymns and songs that have been passed on for generations. This is the content that inspires, changes, and shapes our thinking, our speech and our actions. Memorizing these kinds of things can also allow for personalization as children get to choose many of the items they want to memorize. Mason talks about the importance for a child to store up poetry and, especially, Scripture, because “we cannot tell when or how this manner of seed may spring up, grow, and bear fruit (Vol.1, p.253).” Even with the memorizing of inspiring passages, Mason has a method that is more natural instead of force-feeding children. She says that the passages should be read in small sections day by day until the students think they know it. Then they can recite it to see what they have memorized.
Having children memorize facts can be seen as a way of controlling a child’s education. If we present a feast before children, we don’t have control over what a child will take or accept and what relationships they will build. We trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the child. This can be a scary process, but if we believe that all education is self-education, this is the way it must be done.
Yes, memory work is an important part of a Mason education. But the content of what is committed to one’s memory and soul must be inspiring, life-giving and beautiful. For education should not primarily be about information, but about transformation.
Collin, Billy (2001, June 3). Commencement Speech at Choate Rosemary Hall.
Mason, C. M. (1989). A philosophy of education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).
Mason, C. M. (1989). Home Education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).
Michael, William C. (2009, June 10). “Call it What You Wish: A Commentary on the Lost Tools of Learning.” Classical Liberal Arts Academy.
© Shannon Whiteside 2013