Something They Will Not Forget taps into the anxiety of every teacher: am I really making a difference in the lives of my students? Joshua Gibbs acknowledges this fear and argues that we cannot know if we have made an impact unless students remember what we have taught them. He opens the book saying, “What is not retained is not learned.” Gibbs argues that memory is the test of a good education. If students cannot remember what we teach, then we must not be teaching them. And even worse, the students will realize that they are not remembering our lessons and so students will become scoffers of the education that we are offering (p 19).
The discussion in this book is thought-provoking but much of what Gibbs suggests is problematic and unhelpful. I suggest that he is on the verge, if not already there, of succumbing to John Dewey’s worldview. That is a large claim and I will give evidence for that below.
But first, I need to say that I agree with the main point of the book: students should memorize. And this should be true not just in the grammar stage but through every stage and age. And students should memorize good, true, and beautiful passages. Yes, amen. Sign me up.
So my critique is not with the catechism memory project. My critique is with the philosophy behind it. Gibbs sets up the project this way, “If the date is not important, students should not be asked to have it memorized for two weeks, and if the date is important, students should not have it memorized for a mere two weeks” (p 11). In this way, he argues that memory is the standard by which we determine what we teach: if students will not remember something for a long time, then it should not be part of the curriculum.
To Remember or not to Remember
While I agree with Gibbs that memory is important, it should not be the standard that judges what we teach. In our postmodern age, many are looking for a universal standard and some run to memory because it seems to offer some objectivity. If I can remember my past and what has happened to me then I can know who I am today. If I can remember western culture and history, then I can know what my society is. In this way, memory seems to give me a standard by which to judge other things: I can look back at what happened before and determine reality.
Gibbs suggests this himself: “…ceremony is a way of being, a way of besting the vanity of life under the sun. To do a thing every day, at the same time, and according to the same customs is a little victory against time–time which naturally destroys the body and corrupts the memory” (p 28). Here Gibbs describes time as a menace that is eroding us, including our memories. He suggests rituals and memory as a way to fight against time and corruption.
However, memory is not the solution for fighting corruption and obtaining truth. Even if I cannot remember my birth, it does not mean I was not born. Even if I cannot remember all the meals my mother made me, it does not mean she did not love me or care for me in tangible ways. Even if the world were to forget Homer, it would not mean the end of civilization. It would be sad, yes, but not the end. And to be clear, I do not want Homer to be lost or forgotten. That will happen over my dead body.
The key point then is that memory is not the test of learning and growth. It plays a role in these things but it is not the highest standard. Objective truth is the highest standard of learning. Which is to say, Jesus is the standard. Do our students love Jesus more because of what we are teaching and what they are learning? If they do not, then we should throw out Homer and the memory projects. Now, thankfully, we don’t have to do that. God in His grace has given us tools and resources to help us show students how to love what we are teaching. Memory is one of those tools but it is only a tool.
Teacher as Priest
The first issue I see with the book is that Gibbs sets up the teacher a kind of priest. At one point, he even describes an exam ceremony where he dresses up like a priest (p 107). At another point, he says, “The classroom is something just less than sacred, but it is something more than secular” (p 42). He doesn’t give support for this position; he just suggests it. I would like to see a defense of this idea.
In another place Gibbs says “The good classroom is an icon of the world, not an oasis from the world” (p 27). He also describes his catechism in a similar way: “…the catechism is an icon of the curriculum…” (p 44). His use of the term icon here is not accidental; this is a religious term that comes from Eastern Orthodoxy.
Gibbs later explains why students are reading what they are reading by saying, “The dead have told me what they want for you. I am an intermediary between you and the dead, between you and the past” (p 41). While this explanation is creative, Gibbs is making reference to Eastern Orthodox theology which teaches that Christians can and do communicate with the dead. So while it might sound like a metaphor to some readers, this claim has religious connotations which teachers should be cautious about.
Gibbs also makes similar religious claims about Western literature. He says, “The Western canon is the sacrament of education, and must be administered by a vetted, worthy custodian” (p 40). He also tells his students, “I am giving you this Book because it is divine” (p 41). While I agree with him that the Western canon is important, I do not give it divine status. In fact, it is demeaning to suggest that these books have a divine or sacramental role. Many of these works are by pagan authors. This is not to dismiss these authors in the slightest. It is to hold them in their proper place. I honor and love them as I honor and love my non-Christian grandfather (who fought in WWII) but I do not ignore their errors. The only book that we should hold up as divine is the Bible.
Teacher as Performer
It is also problematic that Gibbs encourages the teacher to become a performer for his students. Gibbs doesn’t call it this but that is what he is suggesting.
At one point, he paints a picture of his ideal teacher. He writes, “When I was in high school, I always wanted a teacher who was a bit like Robert Graves, some weirdo crypto-pagan whose affiliation with Christianity seemed so perilously unlike anyone else I knew, it was hard to credit his salvation…” (p 98). He then describes this ideal man as a “wild teacher” who “shouted and was terrifying” (p 99). Gibbs concludes, “…I realized that precious little was keeping me from becoming the teacher I had always wanted back in high school” (p 99).
While this description is creative and romantic, it is actually a little silly. Why is Gibbs promoting this as an ideal teacher: A crypto-pagan? One who might not be saved? Shouldn’t a teacher be a Christian man who loves God? I hope Gibbs is not really like his description. I also highlight the way he started this paragraph: “When I was in high school.” I would suggest that is a terrible place to find a standard for an ideal teacher. If I chose to be like my ideal from high school, I would make a terrible teacher.
I would humbly suggest the following as a better, more realistic ideal for a teacher.
A teacher should be is a solid, man of God who loves Jesus more than anything else. He is a faithful husband to one wife. His children respect him. He laughs loud and he enjoys the good gifts of God. He reads the Bible and prays. He memorizes scripture and quotes it regularly. He loves to worship with God’s people and to hear God’s word proclaimed in sermons. He reads and studies the classic works of western culture and he knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He mocks the “cultured” works of art of the modern world and he loves watching The Three Stooges and Shakiest Gun in the West. He is down to earth and he owns a gun. He loves to teach people of all ages. He loves questions from his students. He wants his students to be more important in the world than he is. He understands his place as a servant under the authority of parents and he doesn’t try to be a pseudo-parent to his students. He wants to see all his students walking faithfully with Jesus all their lives.
Teacher as John Dewey
Finally, Gibbs seems to embrace much of John Dewey’s philosophy of education. This is the primary philosophical ground for much of the book which is why I think the book is problematic. The two previous critiques connect to this third one. Dewey, like Gibbs, elevates education to a religious performance. Dewey, in his article called “My Pedagogic Creed,” suggests that the school “may determine ethical results” and the school is society’s “paramount moral duty.” Dewey even closes out his Creed saying, “I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God” (Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed).
Gibbs echoes Dewey in other ways. Gibbs claims, “School is life, but school should also be an homage to life” (p 18). That idea comes from Dewey who also argues that school is life: “I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed).
Gibbs also says, “Many teachers suffer from the delusion that students will care deeply about a thing if that thing is shown to be necessary for success in their next lives as adults. In thirteen years of teaching, though, I have generally found teenage sympathies are nearly impenetrable by concerns for the future” (p 21). This also comes from Dewey, “The future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present, something must be hitched on to it to make it work. Promises of rewards and threats of pain are employed” (Dewey, Democracy and Education, p 55).
These parallels to Dewey should raise concerns for Christian educators. While education is a key part of a child’s real life and should apply to it, it is also important to understand school as preparation for the future. Some of what we do in school will not apply right away to life but it is still important. Dewey elevates necessity to the standard by which we judge a good education but that standard is the very thing that tore down classical education a hundred years ago.
In conclusion, the test of a good education is not memory. It can be a part of that test but the real test is if the student loves Jesus and is loving his neighbor. This is not to suggest that the other stuff–Latin vocabulary, science terms, logic syllogisms, dates, etc–are not important. They are. But we must realize that remembering them is not the highest goal of education. The highest goal is students who are good and moral. The reality is that students can memorize and recite long passages of Milton and still turn out immoral.
The key to this goal is that we need faithful parents raising godly children who receive education with a thankful heart. That is the need of our day. I can tangibly see this reality in my classroom. Students, who have parents who love them well, learn the best and remember the best. These students are cheerful, thankful, and diligent. But that is something that students must have before they come to my classroom.
The reality is even if students do not remember everything that I have taught them, it has still shaped them. It has shaped them in the same way that all the meals my mother made for me when I was younger have shaped me. They are a part of me even if I cannot remember them all. Teachers shape and impact students every day, even if the student cannot remember everything. The key then is to teach students how to learn and how to memorize. If students learn those tools, then they will take that with them wherever they go, even if they cannot remember everything else I taught.