How many times have you taken a required course only to discover that after summer you forgot pretty much everything? I suspect everyone has had such an experience at least once. If not, you’re either lying, or you’re a genius with impeccable memory who should be on “Jeopardy.”
The unfortunate part about learning so many things in school is that the more you learn, the more there is to forget. Students aren’t the only ones familiar with this problem: it’s an unending struggle for teachers to find ways to make their courses engaging and memorable, to overcome the forgetfulness of our overstuffed brains.
Addressing this problem is the focus of Joshua Gibbs’s book “Something They will Not Forget: A Handbook for Classical Teachers.” Gibbs is a teacher at a classical Christian school in Virginia, where he teaches the great books in sophomore humanities courses. As a teacher of history and literature–subjects packed with names, dates, plot summaries and all the other things students are prone to forget–he is particularly interested in finding ways to teach things that his students will remember for more than just one test.
“Something They will Not Forget” makes two key suggestions. First, it argues for asking students moral questions rather than practical ones. As he says in the introduction, instead of asking students for a list of names in the Stuart line on a test, ask how Edmund Burke makes you want to change the way you watch television or how Victor Frankenstein is a negative example of a satisfying life.
Gibbs’s second and more striking proposal, is the catechism: a collection of notable passages from texts covered in the course, read aloud by the students at the beginning of every class. Lasting around seven minutes, the catechism is given in a question-and-answer format, where students recite answers to questions posed by the teacher. Though importantly never assigned for a grade in any way, the sheer repetition of the catechism means students inevitably memorize long passages of prose. It contains not names and dates but beautiful reflections on virtue and vice, the nature of humanity and the art of living well.
The catechism is unusual, for opening every class with a standing, group recitation of the same text seems like an odd way to run a classroom. But it is also quite intriguing for teachers, because it suggests that the perennial problem of forgetfulness is solvable simply by group recitation. Memorization is nothing new–teachers have been handing out study guides and administering tests for years. But the catechism posits that there is a distinct difference between memorizing things sporadically on your own and memorizing them as a group. Group recitation, Gibbs believes, is far more robust. And because the catechism is composed of scripture and other passages from famous classical authors, by the end of the course, students will have committed to heart some of the greatest writings of the Western canon.
“Something They Will Not Forget” is a much needed book for an education system plagued by grade inflation, tedious study guides and dull tests. His classically inspired catechisms are a noble solution to our forgetfulness. In holding his students to a standard of moral excellence and piety, rather than fruitless memorization of names and dates, Gibbs has presented an inspiring example of teaching the good, the true and the beautiful.