Something they will not forget: a handbook for classical teachers

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RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Gibbs, Joshua. Something They Will Not Forget: A Handbook for Classical Teachers. Concord, NC: CiRCE Institute, 2019.

Main idea: the practices of memorization and recitation turn information into formation.

Resist the urge to ask “practical questions” in literature and social studies. They usually aren’t practical and no one cares. Moral questions, however, are far more interesting and almost naturally engage the student.

Let’s be honest. Even if you are the best teacher, students usually don’t care about the content and won’t remember it. That’s because there are different ways we “memorize facts.” The most important way to memorize facts is by habitual use. That puts the literature teacher in a strange position, since most of us (myself excluded) don’t carry around copies of Shakespeare so we can memorize it in our spare time.

Gibbs argues that “knowledge is knowing that certain things are, but wisdom is knowing how the souls of things rhyme with each other” (Gibbs 16). That’s a very beautiful sentence, but doesn’t it suggest that memorization is not needed? The truth of the matter is that memorization happens best at the intersection of knowledge and wisdom. In other words, “what is the eighth or ninth impression you have on a topic?”

When are We Going to Use This in the Real World?

No one playing sports ever asks this question. You learn the plays in sports because you perceive them as good in themselves. Most of the things we love are quite useless. Strictly speaking, so is God. God is the End, not the means to an end. Therefore, he isn’t a “use.”

And while Gibbs doesn’t make this point explicitly, most of the “practical math” a student learns is quite useless in reality. No, Timmy, you won’t be an astronaut when you grow up. The most “practical” class I took in high school was “business math.” I wish I had stayed in Pre-Cal instead.

Catechism as Ritual Performance

Groups remember better than individuals (26). Strangely enough, no one studies for a test this way. Try it: if you are a literature teacher, connect all of the books you all read this year in the form of a catechism.

Have you ever wondered why classroom journal entries never worked? Remember when the teacher (or maybe you did this as a teacher) made you respond to some supposedly “deep” question during the first five minutes of class? Again, no one cares. That is the least productive time of class because students are still in transition from the hall.

I’ll be honest. His use of turning rote knowledge into a catechism is nothing short of amazing. That’s what bumps this book from four stars to five.

This allows students to transition from “cold” to “ready to learn.” Recitation is the bridge. While I am not a huge fan of classical education, this highlights one of the better aims of it. If classical education is about self-denial, then beginning with other people’s words, rather than pseudo-pious exercises in “self-actualization,” is the place to start. To be honest, most students won’t remember those super Socratic discussions you thought you had with them. Again, no one cares.

This makes a lot of sense. We want students to be good in discussion, but let’s be honest: few of them know how to have a good conversation. That’s why your Socratic circles usually aren’t very good. Even though students talk a lot in class, they don’t know how to speak.

For example, if the question is, “What is human society?” the answer will be about a four sentence response from Edmund Burke. If the question is “What is virtue?” then you could respond from Thomas Aquinas or Jane Eyre. This forces the student to give more in-depth answers and also integrates classic literature into his daily life.

The book ends with examples of final exams. Two comments: they make for amazing reading. There is only one question and it is several pages long. I was drawn into the stories they were telling. Here’s the problem: given the nature and structure of the exam, if you give a student negative marks and his parents complain to the principal, you will almost certainly lose. Doubly so if you are a new teacher.

Quotables

“If Wikipedia could ace your exams, then you are not teaching human beings but machines” (16).

Anything worth memorizing as a class is worth saying out loud every day for two weeks. If it isn’t worth saying, then it isn’t worth memorizing (27).

“The work performed in a ceremony establishes the identity of the people involved because ceremony is neither for amusement nor edification; ceremony is a way of being, a way of besting the vanity of life under the sun” (28).

“As a teacher, I represent the dead” (41).

“Teachers are complicit in the cult of self-affirmation whenever they read long passages of classic literature aloud in class only to ask a room full of fourteen year olds, “So what do you think?” as though the answer truly mattered” (43).

Criticisms

I get his point that using a rubric does not escape the shadow of “subjectivity” in grading. That’s true. It does minimize the subjectivity, though, and the teacher is usually successful in arguing why he gave the grade he did based on the rubric. Parents know that. His case is even stronger if he gives out the rubric ahead of time. I grant his point, however, that subjectivity is not the same as arbitrary. A subjective judgment considers the worth or value of x, not necessarily its substance.
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
Interesting perspective on memory, catechism, recitation, and group learning.

Somewhat related, you might be interested in the work of an Australian scientist named Lynne Kelly. She studies the art of memory in ancient cultures and modern day nonliterary tribes and groups, particularly Australian aborigines, and one thing she brings out is that nonliterary cultures used dances and rituals in order to embed information. These were practiced and rehearsed periodically, and it was done in groups, since that is how a nonliterary culture keeps its knowledge bank. This way societies preserved encyclopediae worth of knowledge without writing anything down. And of course, the knowledge bank will consist of the practical and indispensable tried-and-true for making it, and not frivolties. Dr. Kelly's own theory is that Stonehenge was a performance site and memory aid among other things.

She might interest you.

I've read her book Memory Craft which is more of an exploration of memory techniques. I've toyed with the idea of writing a PB book review on it, along with Nicholas Carr's book on the influence of the internet.
 
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ZackF

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Jacob, I don't quite get what he is trying to do though I'm interested in this subject and perhaps the book :) . Maybe, probably, I'm a bit dense. I put myself in the camp that thinks memorization, as a tool, has suffered from an over corrective pendulum swing in recent decades. Does Gibbs acknowledge any shortcomings in pedagogy from times past? What if any distinctions does he make between himself and other "classical" educators past and present? You said his catechism method turns students form "cold" to "ready to learn." Ready to learn what exactly? I know there is a distinction between "practical" and "moral" subject matter in education though they are not necessarily or even usually mutually exclusive.

I am sorry, I'm just not quite there yet with this one though I'm always grateful for your reviews.
 

Andrew35

Puritan Board Sophomore
"Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless." - Zhuangzi

Thanks for the review! Sounds interesting! Too bad there's no kindle version.

Oh, let me share a link to my absolute favorite education book for new teachers, if I might be so bold. :D Both more informative and more entertaining than the vast majority of stuff out there:

 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Jacob, I don't quite get what he is trying to do though I'm interested in this subject and perhaps the book :) . Maybe, probably, I'm a bit dense. I put myself in the camp that thinks memorization, as a tool, has suffered from an over corrective pendulum swing in recent decades. Does Gibbs acknowledge any shortcomings in pedagogy from times past? What if any distinctions does he make between himself and other "classical" educators past and present? You said his catechism method turns students form "cold" to "ready to learn." Ready to learn what exactly? I know there is a distinction between "practical" and "moral" subject matter in education though they are not necessarily or even usually mutually exclusive.

I am sorry, I'm just not quite there yet with this one though I'm always grateful for your reviews.

He does acknowledge shortcomings in pedagogy. His point about memory is if it isn't worth saying out loud every day for a month, then it isn't worth memorizing.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Another thing: he isn't arguing for memory qua memory in the classroom. He is just tying it in with the types of questions teachers ask on tests. For example, "When was Dante born?" This question has no value in critical thinking and the student will remember it for just as long as the test. On the other hand, some might might think that subjectivity is where we should go, and so they will ask, "What do you think about this passage?" No one should care about the answer.

Rather, Gibbs constructs a catechism that ties in the questions with the answers. Google "joshua gibbs medieval catechism" for a sample. I will post some of the q and As.

1. What is the Divine work?

The fruits of the Holy Spirit are Love Joy Peace Patience Kindness Goodness Faithfulness Gentleness Self-control

2. How should a man live?

The virtues are Faith Hope Love Wisdom Justice Courage Temperance

3. What is temperance?

Modesty Self-control Chastity Humility

4. What are the vices?

Pride Greed Lust Envy Gluttony Anger Sloth

5. What are the spheres of cosmos?

Earth Moon Mercury Venus Sun Mars Jupiter Saturn Stellatum Primum Mobile Empyrean

What does it mean to be human?

Dante teaches that being human is: willing, acting, and receiving recompense for that action.

8. What is freedom?

Free will is the ability to do good or evil; freedom is the inability to do evil.

9. What is righteousness?

Dante teaches that righteousness is wanting what is good, not merely knowing what goodness is; if a knowledge of goodness is not married to a desire for righteousness, mere knowledge profits a man nothing.

10. Who are the twelve apostles?

Peter Andrew James John Philip Bartholomew Thomas Matthew James Thaddeus Simon Judas

11. What are the twelve high feast days of the Church calendar?

The Nativity of Mary (September 8th), The Annunciation (March 25th), The Nativity of Christ (December 25th), The Presentation of Christ at the Temple (February 2nd, 40 days after Christ’s birth), The Baptism of Christ (January 6th), The Transfiguration (August 6th), The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (The Sunday before Easter), The Crucifixion (a moveable feast), The Resurrection (40 hours after the Crucifixion), The Ascension (40 days after Easter), Pentecost (50 days after Easter), The Assumption of Mary (August 15th)

16. What does God know?

God knows all things; God is the very act of knowing.

17. How good is God?

God is all good; God does all good; God is goodness itself.

18. What is justice?

The Franks refuse a preemptive strike against the Saracens, even though God has told them they will be betrayed. The just man does not condemn his enemy for a sin he has not yet committed; the just man prays his enemy will repent of the evil he intends to do.

19. What is just war?

The Franks refused to take every tactical advantage open to them. The Franks voluntarily chose weakness in faith that God fights on behalf of the weak. If the Franks took every strategic advantage possible and won, they could not credit God.

20. What is evil?

Evil is nothingness; an absence; a cancer. Evil corrupts good things, but evil has no private existence of its own.

21. What has St. Paul taught us about the pagans?

Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
 
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