by Eli West, TCA Grade 7 Humanities Instructor

What do you remember from your seventh-grade education?

That’s a question I asked myself recently. It’s especially relevant to me because today I am a seventh-grade humanities teacher at TCA. As such, I’m around seventh-graders on a weekly basis; however, what I can recall from my own seventh-grade is rather slim and disappointing!

I’m then led to ask, “Was my seventh-grade education useless?”  The short answer, I think, is, “No. Not entirely.” But my extremely sparse recollection from an entire year’s worth of schooling is telling.

The issue—unknown to twelve-year-old Mr. West—was that his education was dependent upon conventional pedagogical methods that most adults today don’t question because to them, “That’s just how you do school.” It’s “normal” to have a multiple-choice reading test or a cumulative history exam that includes matching dates and important events.

I could score A after A on these “normal” tests by cramming whatever necessary information was needed for them the day before. But that would soon be followed by a quick memory loss of all that knowledge in just a few weeks’ time! The cycle was: “cram in, then dump out.” Or to use a more visual analogy: “binge wisdom, purge wisdom.” 

I submit to you that a classical education can break this cycle.

To do so, we need to go back to the drawing board. 

We need to think afresh how humans memorize and what we choose to memorize.

 In his inspiring little book, Something They Will Not Forget, author and teacher Joshua Gibbs argues that there are at least two consistent features to the way human beings naturally memorize.

First, Gibbs says that we naturally recall information from communal experiences

Think to yourself: Have you ever taken a test on the Pledge of Allegiance? The answer is most assuredly, “No.” Then why are most of us so readily prepared to rattle off these words without assistance? 

Think again: Have you ever taken a quiz on the first verse of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace”? Why, then, are you already finishing the rest of first line, “how sweet the sound,” in your head?

The reason is—if you’re like me—that you grew up in an American school or you attend an English-speaking church regularly, and you’ve recited these words countless times in a ceremonial fashion. In short, you’ve memorized them via a communal experience. You didn’t have to take a test so that you would remember these important words. In fact, you remember them better than most things you’ve been tested on!

My own humanities class begins each day with an intentional communal experience. For the first 10 minutes of class, we read and recite our Seventh-Grade Recitations together. This is a collection of famous prayers, quotations, definitions, and dates from our history era. Essentially, it's a summary of the most important features of their entire seventh-grade education. By the end of the year, without ever being tested on it, my entire class will be able to retell all this information from memory. How I wish this would have been part of my own seventh-grade experience! 

 Second, as Gibbs puts simply, “People memorize things they need to know.” That is, we naturally remember things we consider essential.

I took a poll of my class last week. When I asked them, “Who knows the phone number to your parents?” every single hand went up. When I asked, “Who knows your house’s mailing address?” again, every hand was raised.

Why do they remember these specific numbers so well? As one student put it, “Because I’ve heard them repeatedly. And if I was ever lost, I would know who to call or where to go.”

In other words, students know this information because, to them, it’s essential! 

At TCA, we believe that all the content in our classrooms is essential. A classical education is not primarily preparation for a job or for the ACT (such small things!), but rather, preparation for living life well. In short, our primary goal is not to teach students “how to be successful,” but rather, to love God and to love their neighbors. What could be more urgent, or essential than this?

And because we believe this about our content, we think it should be repeated often. At TCA, students repeat each cycle in history four times from Grade 1-12. Within these cycles, students revisit the great works of great thinkers in Literature, Science, Mathematics, and more. It is a cycle not of “cram once, dump once,” but rather, “learn, recall, and apply.”

 Finally, we need to think not just about how we memorize, but what we memorize. 

I’m not writing to fool you. Forgetting is—to some extent—an unavoidable element of the human condition. And given this fact, it begs the questions, “Why memorize at all and if we try to memorize anything, what should we?”

To use an analogy, we memorize good things for the same reason that we feed our bodies good food. If you don’t remember exactly what you ate a year ago for lunch (or even a week ago), does that make the food useless? Certainly not. That food has nourished you to be the person you are today. Likewise, even though my students might not remember their recitations perfectly forever, they have indulged on a feast of quality knowledge that is forming their minds and hearts to be mature men and women for life. 

This is the difference between mere information delivery (“cram and dump”) and character formation (“learn, recall, apply”). This is the difference between a conventional education and a classical one!

Would you join us at our next information meeting on October 4 to hear more about a classical education at TCA? We invite you to visit our school and see firsthand how we are giving our students an education that they will not forget. You can find out more information about this meeting and RSVP here.