My maternal grandmother had the merriest brown eyes of anyone I’ve ever known, but they’d take on a special light when she recalled one of the poems she’d learned as a young girl. Her favorite, Daffodils, she could recite to her dying day, with such obvious pleasure that her listeners believed she beheld in her mind’s eye Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils.”
Sadly, few children sitting at their desks as you read this will experience the rewards of committing to memory things worthy of a lifetime of pondering. And, one might note, “Kids don’t memorize things anymore” hardly tops the long list of the ills that plague today’s school systems. From illiterate high school athletes to Common Core unMath to liberal agenda-driven curricula, reciting a litany of what’s wrong with American education is easier than graduating from kindergarten.
Of course, the fads and agendas of the mainstream education industry have also negatively impacted – for decades – religious formation. If you grew up in the 70s or 80s like my siblings and I, your religion books were probably much different than those of your parents, full of cartoon pictures of Jesus with a lamb on his shoulders… and not much else. Every fad that afflicts mainstream education seems to find its way eventually into religious curricula, just after it’s ceased being the new fashionable methodology in the public schools. With less cash to throw around, Catholic schools always come late to the party.
Down with Memorization
So, when “rote” became the newest four-letter-word in the education world, Catholics were as anxious to degrade the value of memorization as everyone else. Of course, other factors influenced the decline of childhood religious formation at the time, too. The bottom line is, we dropped an effective tool for teaching the faith and have not yet recovered our senses.
Of course I’m referring to the Baltimore Catechism. Say those two words to most Catholics over age 60 and you’ll hear either, “To know, love, and serve God in this world and be happy with Him in the next,” or a riveting account involving a mean nun slapping someone’s knuckles with a ruler. Even among orthodox Catholics one does not find unanimously loving memories of Baltimore Catechism formation. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is the most developmentally appropriate tool currently available for formally teaching young children the faith.
Good Enough for Aquinas and More – but not Today’s Tommy
What got dumped from education in the course of the twentieth century was every last vestige that remained of the classical style of education, memorization included. Classical education –through not just decades but centuries of trial and error — had discovered the natural intellectual stages of development of young people, and established an educational regimen that fit each one like a glove, centuries before Jean Piaget proposed his theories. Classical education leverages the unique predispositions inherent in each stage of intellectual development. Thus, at the age when children are prone to a particular skill, that skill is the primary one that is called on for their learning at that time.
In 1947 Dorothy Sayers presented an essay at Oxford entitled, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In it, in addition to lamenting the (already in 1947) deteriorating state of education, she outlines the developmental stages of intellectual formation, and makes a compelling argument for classical forms of education. In the 1980’s, as a result of the failure of modern education methods which was becoming all the more clear, a modern movement for classical education was gaining momentum in the U.S. Sayers’ essay is essentially that movement’s founding document.
My concern here is with the earliest stage of development as it concerns formal education, in which children function from about 3rd through 5th grade (although some children show evidence of entering the stage earlier). During this stage – called the Grammar stage – children’s minds are particularly adept at memorization. As Sayers suggests,
What that material is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can be usefully committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not.
Amant Learning by Rote
The classically formed child, then, will be chanting amo, amas, amat long before she can really elucidate the idea “present tense indicative.” Although it runs completely against the grain of modern methods, it’s ok for a child to memorize something at this age that she doesn’t fully understand, because the memorization is happening at a time when it is easy for a child to do it, and the material will be revisited later – many times – for deeper analysis and understanding.
The modern tendency is to try and force rational explanations on a child’s mind at too early an age. Intelligent questions, spontaneously asked, should, of course, receive an immediate and rational answer; but it is a great mistake to suppose that a child cannot readily enjoy and remember things that are beyond his power to analyze. (Sayers)
What is true of Latin is true of catechetical formation. The modern answer to the memorization needed for childhood study of Latin has been to dispense with Latin. The modern answer to the memorization natural to the study of the Baltimore Catechism has been to dispense with the Baltimore Catechism. In its place we have materials that either present no concrete information or materials that, while orthodox and presenting solid information, do so in a way that is not developmentally targeted. A third grader has little capacity for abstract thinking, but many textbooks make the mistake of “forcing rational explanations” on third graders. Meanwhile, their capacity for memorization is left languishing instead of being leveraged as a tool of learning that will store up a warehouse of knowledge for the child to explore in later years.
Former use of the Baltimore Catechism is sometimes criticized for being an insufficient means of faith formation. I’ve heard the over-60 crowd say that memorizing the catechism was “all we did” for religious formation, and I’ve also heard the answer from my fellow Gen-Xers, “then it was better than doing nothing, which is what we did!”
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. True, memorization of the Baltimore Catechism alone for one’s entire elementary and middle school career will not provide adequate formation. Around 6th or 7th grade most children enter the Rhetoric stage of development and are ready to engage and analyze what they’ve learned and add more complexity to it. They can to some extent synthesize what they know and engage in discussion, and this being the case they should be called on to do so with doctrine and Scripture above all.
I would also argue that the Baltimore Catechism should not be the sole means of formation at any stage, because a family’s living out the faith in prayer, sacraments, devotion to the Saints, growth in virtue, and participation in a parish community are all essential for rooting the faith deep within our children’s hearts. But for the early years of development, around ages 8 to 11, we are robbing our children of lifelong support if we do not build up in them a solid foundation of knowledge for engaging the faith in later life, and the Baltimore Catechism is an ideal tool for this process – no ruler-slapping required.