Over the years of studying classically with my children and working with Classical Conversations, I have heard a lot of myths about classical education. By myth, I do not mean the epic poems of Homer designed to present our children with examples of heroes to follow and villains to shun. I mean the common understanding of the word—misconceptions. (I could digress here into an argument that we need to reclaim the word myth, but I will save that for another day so that we can dive directly into the myths.)
Myth #1 – Classical education is just rote memorization.
There are two issues to address here. We need to look at whether or not memorization is bad for children. Then, we can consider whether or not this is all that they do during the grammar years.
First, why do we automatically assume that memorization is bad? Jewish young men were expected to memorize multiple books of Scripture. Traveling poets in ancient and medieval times memorized long poems such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, the legends of King Arthur, and Beowulf. Just because memorization has become a lost art in our day does not mean that it is no longer good and necessary.
Many of us moderns assume that memorization is either too hard or too boring. If we examine both of these assumptions, we will see that neither of these applies to young children. If it were too hard, then they would never learn to speak English. How do we teach them the words of our language? We repeat them over and over again until they know them. Secondly, children find it pleasurable to memorize and recite. (This explains the lasting popularity of Mother Goose nursery rhymes). Think about how often your children memorize commercials or entire picture books.
There are many things we hope our children will memorize such as Scripture, poetry, and family rules. We also acknowledge that many of their early subjects require memorization for mastery. Few question the importance of memorizing spelling rules and words or of memorizing the multiplication tables. When we tackle foreign languages, we assume that our children will need to memorize vocabulary words and grammar rules. We expect our physicians to memorize human organ systems when they study anatomy.
To follow our own logic, then, we should assume that every subject has basic knowledge that must be memorized. We see this as an important skill at the start of mastering any new subject. We should assume, then, that young children would spend a good deal of time on memory work because all subjects are new to them.
It has been said that God revealed himself to His people in two ways—through His Word and through His world. We all expect our children to hide God’s Word in their hearts, but we often neglect the study of His world. When very young children memorize science facts such as the three types of rocks—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—they are actually learning about how God designed the world. For now, it is pleasurable to them to chant these big words. They are just fun to say! Later, they can examine actual rocks and attempt to classify them into these categories. This is also pleasurable to our minds. We like to put things in order. Still later, they may use their knowledge about rock formations to discuss origin theories.
In all of these activities, we can point them to the Creator. While you are memorizing facts about rocks and examining actual rocks, why not look up Scriptures about rocks? What does Jesus mean when he tells the Pharisees: “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40, KJV).
Throughout our memory work with our children, we should be focused on two ideas. First, we are laying a foundation for future study. Second, we are teaching children about God through the study of His world.
Other critics of classical education agree that memorization is necessary, but mistakenly believe that this is all we are asking young children to do. That would be drudgery indeed! While they are memorizing important facts about God’s world, we want to share stories with them about science and history. You may be tired of reading about rocks or insects or Christopher Columbus, but your children are not. Remember that all things are new and exciting to them. Try to share in their sense of wonder and revel in these years of discovery with them.
As they read, they will be excited to recognize facts they have memorized about science and history. Try to choose books that encourage this sense of wonder. I often turn to older history texts in our home because they encourage children to be amazed at the heroes of the past. Newer biographies often encourage children to be young skeptics. They can be critical thinkers later. For now, they need to be amazed and inspired.
We can reclaim the lost art of memorization as we study God’s Word and His world.