Thursday 15th November 2018

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Could It Be The Curriculum?… Why Don’t Students Remember Anything?

November 6, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By ARTHUR HIPPLER

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn.)

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We readily bemoan the fact that students do not seem to retain what they have learned. This becomes painfully evident when we survey college freshman in their knowledge of history, literature, and science. Students cannot remember the author of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, the significance of the Federalist Papers or the Nuremberg Trials, even the chemical formulas for water or salt. But the problem is not the intelligence of these students. They are the victims of a system that tries to do too much.
Consider by contrast the classical education that informed education for almost two millennia. It did not cover a range of disparate subjects, but focused narrowly on grammar, rhetoric, and history.
In the summary of Augustine scholar James O’Donnell, “The classical education of Augustine had centered on the school authors of his time: the authors of the quadriga Messii (Vergil, Cicero, Terence, and Sallust) loom large in any assessment of his classical equipment, with Vergil and Cicero easily in the lead.”
A curriculum of four authors to us seems incredibly tiny.
But, as Peter Brown observes in his classic biography of Augustine, “The great advantage of the education that Augustine received was that, within its narrow limits, it was perfectionist. The aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of an ancient classic. . . .
“Every word, every turn of phrase of these few classics, therefore, was significant. The writer did not merely write. He ‘wove’ his discourse; he was a man who had ‘weighted the precise meaning of every word.’ We need only see only see how Augustine as a bishop will interpret the Bible as if everything in it were ‘said exactly as it should be said’ to realize the lasting effect of this education” (p. 25).
A small number of books, read with increasing depth year after year, makes an indelible mark on the mind.
The Ratio Studiorum of the Jesuit schools in the early modern period operated with a similar focus. While they studied a larger range of authors than their ancient predecessors, the subjects were four: Greek, Latin, History, and Catechism. The choice of a small number of integrated subjects was quite deliberate. If the goal of education is the training of the mind, giving it permanent habits of understanding and judgment, then certain traits necessarily follow.
The education should be “thorough; for superficial knowledge, smattering, is not training . . . prolonged; for thoroughness cannot be effected in a short time . . . simple, that is, it must be based on a few well-related branches; if too many disconnected subjects are treated, thoroughness becomes absolutely impossible” (Robert Schwickerath, SJ, Jesuit Education: Its History and Principles Viewed in Light of Modern Educational Problems, p.301).
By contrast, our modern education has somewhere between six to eight subjects, unrelated to each other, even unrelated within the same subject. On this latter point, consider the college prep science sequence of biology, chemistry, and physics. Almost nothing in one year of science is repeated in the following year of science.
Similarly, literature may have four courses without any repeated books, topics, or methods of interpretation. History in its turn may cover everything from the Stone Age to end of the Cold War in an avalanche of dates, people, and ideas.
The amazing thing would be if any student, no matter how bright, could retain any significant amount from such a plan of studies.
Fr. Schwickerath made the point well over a century ago: “The modern tendency in education . . . comprises too many various subjects, the consuming of which does not effect a healthy mental growth, but an intellectual hypertrophy. It is showy and dazzles the eye of the public, and even of some whose education and position in the world of culture should be a safeguard against such delusion. For these very reasons it is most detrimental to true progress” (ibid, pp. 301-302).
We fear that our children are not “exposed” to all the branches of learning and all the fields of knowledge, and consequently we give them an education that is largely two dimensional — surface with no depth. The classical education that informed Catholic schools for centuries had demonstrable results. Students graduated with poetry and speeches that they had learned by heart, and the analytical habits of mind that grammar and Latin are uniquely fitted to develop.
Now, mysteriously, we are supposed to believe that a high school curriculum that provides for no long-term retention of any knowledge whatsoever somehow develops “critical thinking,” “creativity,” and “cultural awareness.”
The problem is not the students. The problem is not the teachers. No teachers are so gifted, no students so intelligent, that they can overcome the intrinsic problems with the modern panoply of subjects and expectations.

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Having watched the first session of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops General Meeting, and that fact that the Pope has ordered them not vote on any action items, I have to ask, what is the point of this meeting? What is the point of National Bishops' Conferences?

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