The Value of Memorization & Recitation
In her third volume, School Education, Charlotte Mason says, "It cannot be too often said that information is not education."¹ This is largely due to the fact that Miss Mason believed there to be a distinct difference between acquiring information and assimilating knowledge. She goes on to say that, "The distinction between knowledge and information is, I think, fundamental. Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it."² Simply put, information consists of facts whereas knowledge makes an impression on the mind.
Charlotte Mason often used the analogy of a feast to describe the process of educating children. She believed feeding children facts and tidbits information offers little "nutritional" value for their growing minds; in fact she states, "mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body..." Whereas, when we spread a rich feast of knowledge filled with living ideas our children's minds will be far more nourished and thus able to grow into all God created them to be. She goes on to say, "that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into [the child's] being; all the rest is cast away or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury. Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food."³
Charlotte Mason cautioned parents and educators against distilling the purpose of education down to acquiring mere information. Further still she claimed that how we measure student learning often encourages the very fact regurgitation she advocated against. She believed when we measure student learning by assessing how much information they have memorized, students’ "aim [becomes] a pass, not knowledge; 'they cram to pass and not to know; they do pass and they don't know,'...and most of us who know the 'candidate' will admit that there is some truth in the epigram. There are, doubtless, people who pass and who also know, but, even so, it is open to question, whether passing is the most direct, simple, natural and efficacious way of securing knowledge..."⁴
This is one of the areas where Charlotte Mason and the neo-classical model diverge. Specifically in regards the neo-classical grammar stage where children focus on memorizing facts with the purpose of creating pegs on which to hang later learning. But Charlotte Mason actually believed the opposite to be true. She stated, "all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain."⁵ [emphasis added] In other words, she thought that offering obscure facts to students to memorize devoid of living ideas is far less effective in terms of retaining knowledge.
Of course memorization, "has its subsidiary use in education, no doubt, but it must not be put in the place of the prime agent which is attention."⁶ We ask students to memorize math facts, for example. Yet memorization of facts is not really the end goal. Instead we should be cultivating a deep, significant, worthwhile understanding of the living ideas behind the memorization; the primary thing we are going for is being able to attend well to these ideas and as a result, children will remember (or "memorize") what is meaningful and moving to their personhood.
Charlotte Mason also makes a distinction between memorization and recitation. Reciting something aloud, with the primary focus on how the selected text is beneficial for a myriad of reasons such as: fluency, pronunciation, pacing, emotion, etc. Yet, Charlotte Mason believed when we're provide recitation material that contains living ideas, students will undoubtedly assimilate and memorize meaningful content that touches their soul. She explains, "The learning by heart of Bible passages should begin while the children are quite young, six or seven. It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages, and we cannot tell when and how this manner of seed may spring up, grow, and bear fruit; but the learning of the parable of the Prodigal son, for example, should not be laid on the children as a burden."⁷
This is in contrast to memorization in a utilitarian sense. "In order to memorise, we repeat over and over a passage or a series of points or names with the aid of such clues as we can invent; we do memorise a string of facts or words, and the new possession serves its purpose for a time, but it is not assimilated; its purpose being served, we know it no more."⁸ Again, in Charlotte Mason's philosophy knowledge is only truly meaningful and assimilated when it is given provided within the context of living ideas - otherwise it is likely to be forgotten. Memorization of information isn't the goal of education at any stage of a child's life; nor is regurgitation of said information.
We'll end with a longer quote from Miss Mason's final volume entitled A Philosophy of Education. In the following quote she explainins how narration isn't asking students to memorize all that they hear in a given reading. In addition she shares how narration promotes the type of mind memory that's meaningful and allows knowledge to become part of a child’s personhood, making an Impact that lasts. She says:
"Now a passage to be memorised requires much conning, much repetition, and meanwhile the learners are 'thinking' about other matters, that is, the mind is not at work in the act of memorising. To read a passage with full attention and to tell it afterwards has a curiously different effect. M. Bergson makes the happy distinction between word memory and mind memory, which, once the force of it is realised, should bring about sweeping changes in our methods of education. Trusting to mind memory we visualise the scene, are convinced by the arguments, take pleasure in the turn the sentences and frame our own upon them; in that particular passage or chapter has been received us and become a part of us just as literally as was yesterday's dinner; nay, more so, for yesterday's dinner is of little account tomorrow; but several months, perhaps hence, we shall be able to narrate the passage we had, so to say, consumed and grown upon with all the vividness, detail and accuracy of the first telling."⁹
¹,² Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 170, 225
³,⁶,⁸ Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 109, 17, 20, 174
⁴,⁵ Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 217, 278
⁷ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 253.