Ars Memoriae

Why would anyone think that memorization is not a valuable part of learning?

In the 1960s, contrary to the inherited wisdom of mankind, educators in general and Catholic educators, too, decided that having students memorize things was a terrible notion. If I recall, the thinking was that memorizing was a purely mechanical operation, that it did not penetrate to the deep truth, and that it turned out mindless robots who would uncharitably spew their mind chaff out at opponents to distract them and protect them from being caught by the truth.

Or something like that.

The fear of being “hypocritical” was at work here—that great Calvinist weight that hung like an albatross around the necks of the puritans and which they transferred to their Progressive descendents who still demarcate the Elect and the Damned based on worldly signs. Their acute awareness of the difference between the outer man and the inner man made some of them greatly aware of how debased is our state in this world, but also made some of them greatly concerned with the evidentiary signs of blessedness.

Some of them strove to align the inner man with the outer one, even though they were convinced that not they but God was the only one capable of that. Their modern Progressive descendents gave up on that project as ultimately hopeless and decided that the only way to achieve the alignment of the inner and outer—to become “authentic”—was to erase the difference: which meant accepting one’s unfashioned self not only as one’s “natural” condition, but as one’s highest ideal. Indeed, it sometimes seems that for Progressives “hypocrisy” is not only the greatest sin, but perhaps the only one. It certainly seems sometimes like the only one they are interested in convicting others of.

That affected the modern view of pedagogy (as it did liturgical ad libbers, seeking “authenticity”). Even losers began to receive awards because they were “great” in and of themselves. It was reminiscent of the way in which declaring oneself already “saved” somehow was warped to mean that no one had to make any effort at holiness as a result.

Before, the problem was finding the best way to bring an unformed being into alignment with the highest wisdom offered by culture. But after Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ludicrously unrealistic picture of pedagogy in Émile, this was reversed: the “highest wisdom” of the culture was judged as a sham and a debasement that created and protected hypocrites, and the pedagogical mission came to be seen as the destruction of that culture in the child, so that the authentic inner man—the noble savage—could flourish.

“Rote memorization” was a foundational pillar of the older pedagogy, so it had to go, along with all other methods of instilling into the child the conventional formulations of wisdom. Rote memorization was seen as a purely “mechanical” operation, opposed to what was “natural.” Perhaps the new pedagogues were inspired by the Platonic notion—put into the mouth of Socrates in the Meno—that the highest learning is essentially an act of anamnesis, a remembering of what one already knows. In any event, Catechism class began to have its students meet at the springs and banks of the River Lethe in order to make them deliberately forget their past and their tradition, in order to allow their underlying truth to shine through.

It was bruited about that one must act and behave as one feels—and so the refusal to accept the argument that that often entails sin. No, it was said, sin lies in not acting the way one is naturally inclined to. Only that is freedom—and it is in essence good: No matter what it is that one does, the fact that it is what one chooses validates it. Otherwise one is “inauthentic,” one’s freedom is artificially (and therefore evilly) restricted, and one is a hypocrite: for then the inner man and the outer man are not the same, but are different.

And so too about the content of the Faith, about doctrine and dogma: These now became “oppressive” structures under the modern gnostic view, imposed from without upon the inner man, and so are “inauthentic.” Such views are “tyrannical” by definition, and, as Jefferson and Franklin loved to say, “Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God,” using terms that John Knox morphed Calvinism into, in order to justify their revolt against earthly authority. The puritans of New England, so concerned with catechisms and confessions of right belief, within the space of two generations, threw off such “restrictions” as tyrannical, and became Unitarians and Universalists who chafed at any creeds or restrictions on their “freedom.”

The same Calvinist rigidity remained, however, even though Calvin had been turned upside down: Human agency and responsibility for one’s being a member of the Elect (and so saved) remained voided, as it had been in Calvin, but now that same negation of human agency meant that they stayed up at night dreaming dreams of salvation for all, no matter what they had done on earth, rather than dreams of eternal damnation, no matter what they had done of earth. The Day of Judgment had indeed passed, but now that was a matter for rejoicing, not for paralyzing terror, for the judgment on mankind was that it was redeemed.

The conviction that we all have to worry that we are indeed losers (no matter what evidence we may be able to produce to the contrary) suddenly became we are all winners (no matter what evidence we may be able to produce to the contrary). Of course, anything that imposed itself on us and caused friction between who we are and who we should be was false and “tyrannical” and obscured the fact that the inner man was already saved. For it created a difference there between the inner and outer, and that difference was summed up as “hypocrisy.” As we would say today, it was a kind of “false consciousness.” So the sons and daughters of the puritans became radical revolutionaries dedicated to Liberty (unrestricted as far as possible) against earthly authority and convention, and saw everyone else as hypocrites, as leading a false and double life, as mewling compromisers who accepted infernal restrictions upon the true liberty of the sons of God.

And so the trajectory was set, always expanding liberty, always sloughing off “artificial” impositions and restrictions, always investing this quest for liberty with the nature of a quest for realizing one’s “authentic” self, already free and only temporarily bound by false conventions. This translated into pedagogy that was aimed at recognizing and affirming that the self was already deserving of “esteem” no matter what, and at arming oneself with the weapons one might need to recognize and defeat false impositions—civic education was therefore understood as “critical thinking skills.” And “question authority” was eventually articulated as the highest good.

Many Catholics assimilated all this. By now a very large swath of “Catholics” in America has been converted to Progressivism, expressed in religious terms along the lines most clear in Unitarian Universalism, even though they may still call themselves “Catholics.” For such a “Catholic,” the highest value is the free exercise of “choice.” And, this is simply a freestanding and unrestricted value and does not depend on what it is that one “chooses.” It is the very exercise of that freedom of choice that gives it its value. Except, of course, when one chooses to submit to someone else—like a child within one’s womb or to a marriage commitment—or to any discipline external to one’s essentially uninhibited self. Choosing to submit to someone or something out of one’s control, of course, is choosing to give up one’s unlimited freedom, negating the Progressive’s principle of freedom of choice, and so cannot be allowed.

As with so many other aspects of religious life, the Second Vatican Council served for many as a kind of seal of this conversion. In its wake, as in so many other areas, the Progressives’ theological and anthropological assumptions and its utopian projections swept away traditional Catholic practices and beliefs. The practice of catechesis now began to condemn the “rote” memorization of the catechism. Such a method, it was now believed, produced only parrots, who could recite without truly understanding.

The new utopian, iconoclastic, millenarian, catechetical fire swept through Catholic pedagogy and burned up the old books of catechism, and even all efforts to instill doctrine, dogma, or practice, and left in its wake “religious education” classes that were reduced to having children learn that Jesus (whoever that was) loved them and that we love him too when we make a bunch of fun collages. A “sacrament”? What is that? It’s Jesus loving me. A “commandment”? It’s Jesus loving me. The Council of Nicaea? It’s Jesus (who was that again?) loving me. … when do we get the cookies and grapejuice? So, in short, a disaster. A “Faith” pretty much void and pathetically transparent (“loving me”). Not because my generation threw out the catechism (Baltimore or otherwise) per se, but because my generation adopted the indifferentist universalism in the light of which any catechism is an unjust fetter.

As for catechesis and memorization: Yes, memorization is a kind of submission. But it is not bad. Outside the howling winds of pedagogical theory affected by the hurricanes of unspoken but fundamentally Christian-tinged theological battles, this is still recognized. In the sciences, for example, at least in science education that really prepares one to do science, rather than bloviate about it. Or even in non-Christian religious catechesis.

And so something like that was always understood, too, in Christian education. Sheer memorization was no guarantee of holiness, but committing the content of Faith to one’s memory was more like a necessary condition, although, of course, not a sufficient one, on the road to holiness. The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed—these are the “seal of the Faith,” a kind of testament to what one strives for and dedicated oneself to. The catechism—in the form of its content in one’s memory—was the armor and weapons with which one waged spiritual battle, not only against one’s external opponents, but against the still-unreconstructed parts of oneself.

Without such a weapon, one is both without conviction and without defenses. Although one may not “fully” understand an article of Faith when it is first memorized, the memorized form is meant to serve as a seed that will grow and leaf out as its roots spread in the soil. It is something that can be more fully appreciated, tested, and understood as one grows. It is not something that is meant to simply lie inert in the mind. Memorizing creeds and contents of the Faith is one of the first things you had a child do, with the intention that it would serve as the basis for further growth and maturity. It was not enough to “have it in one’s notes” rather than in one’s mind. It was the seed corn, the beginning of pedagogy, not the end of it, as critics later claimed. In itself, it does not create hypocrites, but provides a guide for bringing the inner, unreconstructed man up to (and closer to) the outer one.

So remind me: why did we give that up?

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).