In Church, In The Classroom: Made For Memory

Sep 20, 2017

Yesterday my Modern European Humanities class began with their catechism, but not a full recitation. I asked my students to stand, but asked them to not have their catechisms in hand. “Let’s see how much you have memorized already. I will read the longer answers in the catechism and occasionally pause. When I pause, you supply the next word.” Most of the catechism is longer excerpts from the curriculum, including some ornate passages from Burke and St. Paul.

When reading the passage from Romans 8 on the catechism, I quickly became aware that one student in the class already had it committed to heart. I stopped, the class looked at this student, and he said the passage from Romans in full, then the passage from Roger Scruton in full. Given that we are but three full weeks into class, I and every other student in the class was amazed.

This morning, I asked the student, “Have you been practicing the catechism outside of class?”

He said, “No. I am Anglican and there is a lot to the liturgy. I have been saying the liturgy for years and I have it committed to heart. In Church, if I do not pay attention to the liturgy, it becomes dull. But when I pay attention, it is not dull at all.”

Indeed. When this student says the catechism, he says it with greater zeal than all his classmates.

I was struck by the fact that, in describing his capacity to memorize something outside of church, the young man immediately cited traditions from within the church. I have intentionally structured the catechism after church catechisms, but the manner of our recitation borrows from religion, as well— we stand to say the catechism, we say it communally, we say it as a matter of course and not merely on special occasions.

When classical educators speak of classroom liturgies, it is important we remember that we are drafting on the power of church liturgies. Classroom liturgies do not look like church liturgies in the way “that cloud looks like a duck.” The liturgies of the church are not anomalies, without analog in the world without. The church is a refuge, but a permeable refuge. The church forms her members for particular kinds of work, and memory is one such work.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.