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.
“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).
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.