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    Home Education

    Myth: CM and memory work don’t mix.

    October 4, 2014 by Brandy Vencel


    Before I begin, I would like to say that the goal in writing this is to come to a greater realization of the truth of memorization. I look forward to hearing your feedback as we co-inquire into this art of memorization.

    There have been countless Charlotte Mason supporters who have stood firm in the assertion that to institute memory work in the education of the child is to treat that child like a machine. Treating a child like a machine would, of course, be incompatible with a CM education, namely because we would not be viewing the child as a person. So if this idea of memorization is accurate then I would have to agree and turn my back on such methods as well. I have, however, noticed some things as I have studied Charlotte Mason, her methods, and her teachings, and I believe these ideas are worth our attention.

    First, before we go further, let us give ourselves a good definition of memorize and memory.

    Memorize means to commit to memory or to learn by heart.

    Memory comes from the Latin word memoria, meaning mindful or remembering. The Greek root means “to remember, from mind, or the same root.” Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language defines memory as “the faculty of the mind by which it retains the knowledge of past.”

    Modern dictionaries contain some of the following definitions:

    The mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions, etc., or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.

    The act or fact of retaining and recalling impressions, facts, etc.; remembrance; recollection: to draw from memory.

    A mental impression retained; a recollection: one’s earliest memories.

    One of the things that struck me as I read these definitions was the emphasis on experience. This realization in turn made me immediately think of Charlotte Mason’s principle that education is the science of relations.

    ‘Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of —

    “Those first-born affinities
    “That fit our new existence to existing things.”

    She goes on to say,

    ‘Education is a Science of Relations;’ by which phrase we mean that children come into the world with a natural [appetite] for, and affinity with, all the material of knowledge; for interest in the heroic past and in the age of myths; for a desire to know about everything that moves and lives; about strange places and strange peoples; for a wish to handle material and to make; a desire to run and ride and row and do whatever the law of gravitation permits.

    These two excerpts speak to the very nature of memory. “to know by heart” and to have “the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, impressions.”

    The thing that made Charlotte Mason’s observations so brilliant was that she noticed some things were not fitted well for a drill type of memorization, and some were. For the former types of things, we have narration. Miss Mason would tell us “we narrate what we know.” In other words, we know something by heart if we can tell about it and recall our impressions about it.

    The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.

    Philosophy of Education, p. 257

    For other things, a more drill type memorization is fitting. In these situations, Miss Mason had the student simply memorize the thing. Some examples of this are drill for math and Euclid. She also had her students memorize and recite Scripture, poetry, and Shakespeare.

    Recitation and committing to memory are not necessarily the same thing, and it is well to store a child’s memory with a good deal of poetry, learnt without labor.

    Home Education, p. 224

    In considering some of these ideas on memory, we come across the issue of whether drill type memory work is treating a student like a machine or not. I have a couple thoughts on this. First, I believe with my whole heart that if a student is a person, created in the image of God with a soul, spirit, and body, then they are incapable of rote memory. Since we are living beings, we are not robots. So, even if someone states a simple fact to a student for them to memorize, the student would have no other option than to process it as a human. Every time the student repeats that truth to himself, it integrates within the student furthering the relationship he has with the knowledge, his world, and the past.

    Also, the great tradition Miss Mason participates in highly values memorization as an art form. According to the ancient and medieval student, memorizing might possibly be the greatest expression that a relationship has formed. The definitions above all point to a remembering, moving to act, knowing by heart, remembering experiences, etc…. This idea is expressed most clearly in the texts reflecting on the medieval art of memory. To memorize, to the medieval scholar, was to memorialize ideas. Mary Carruthers, in her book The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, asserts that medieval culture was itself a “memorial” culture, one that makes “present the voices of what is past, not to entomb either the past or the present, but to give them life in a place common to both in memory.”

    The truth is, memorizing and knowing something by heart is all the same, and both point to forming the vital relationships of a student’s education, whether these come by playing with a tadpole and telling his mother all about it, hearing a story and communicating a wonderful narration, or by repeating eternally true number relationships over and over until they have soaked into his soul.

    Education really is the science of relations and memorization plays an integral part.

    Expanding wisdom, extending grace,
    Jennifer Dow

    Jennifer Dow is a fellow homeschooling mother deeply committed to the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. She has completed the CiRCE Apprenticeship program as a CiRCE certified Classical Teacher and has taught several literature, writing, fine art, and nature study classes throughout the local homeschool community. Currently Jennifer teaches for the CiRCE Online Academy, her local classical co-op, and maintains her blog, Expanding Wisdom: A Christian Classical Homeschooling Blog. Most importantly, she is married to Ernie and mother to three children, Josiah, Sierra, and Kathleen. The Dows are a real family with stains on the carpet and writing on the wall. They are in process and learning to love what they ought.

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  • Reply Alissa February 22, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    I am still a little confused. Are math drills treating the child as a machine?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 22, 2017 at 7:59 pm

      I think with math drills the answer is that it *could* be, but doesn’t have to be. Charlotte Mason basically said that a child shouldn’t memorize, for example, a times table, until he has first made one. So she wanted him to come to an understanding of basic multiplication and the table itself before trying to memorize it. She was leading with the idea, if that make sense. 🙂

  • Reply Lynna @ Homeschooling without Training Wheels August 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Brandy/Jennifer, this piece was incredibly helpful and clarifying for me. I was a Latin major in college and very attracted to the idea of classical schooling (read Dorothy Sayer’s book). However, as a parent, Charlotte Mason really captured my heart and fit with what I knew about my own children (and myself) and how learning actually happens. But I’d already seen the benefits of memorization, such as the catechism, multiplication tables and Latin endings I’d learned and used over and over. Was I going to have to be a CM rebel (or reject)? This post put it all together for me. Brilliant!

  • Reply At AfterThoughts Blog: Myth: CM and Memory Work Don't mix - Expanding Wisdom May 28, 2016 at 10:32 am

    […] I am over at After Thoughts Blog helping to bust the Myth that ‘Charlotte Mason and Memory Work Don’t Mix’     […]

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