Some Thoughts on Memorywork and Grammar

Dear Reader,

I return once again to Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. You can read my review of it here. Though I wasn’t thrilled by the book, it made me think. Not to surprisingly in a work on imagination (or the lack thereof) in children, Esolen gives us some insight into his take on education. Though he does not profess allegiance to one particular philosophy of education, he seems to me to fall in the classical education camp. Though my own approach tends to follow along the lines of a Charlotte Mason education, I was intrigued by some of what he had to say.

Esolen is a fan of memorywork, not for the sake of rote learning, but as a means to further innovation and inspiration. He says:

” . . . a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen and heard and done. It can do what no mere search engine on the internet can do. It can call up apparently unrelated things at once molding them into a whole impression, a new thought.” (p. 9)

It is the first part of this that makes me think Esolen might fall into the classical camp with its division of education into stages– first the grammar stage with its memorization and then later logic and rhetoric. This has never appealed to me. But I rather like the picture painted by the second and third sentences of how those seeds come together to form new ideas. Combining disparate threads into something new seems like a wonderful outcome of an education to me. To support his view, Esolen also references the ancient Greeks who said that the Muses, those bearers of inspiration in all the arts, were the daughters of Memory. What a lovely connection that is. Esolen goes on to clarify that it is not merely a matter of memorizing anything that is available. The subject of memorization must be valuable or worthy (note that the whole tone of the book is tongue-in-cheek; therefore Esolen speaks as if he is advocating the killing of the imagination and his advice here has that goal in mind):

“We can encourage laziness. by never insisting that young people actually master, for example, the rules of multiplication, or the location of cities and rivers and lakes on the globe. Then we can allow what is left of the memory to be filled with trash . . . Therefore, for children, books with silly, flat, banal language is best.” (p. 14)

Esolen moves on to discuss other areas of education, among them grammar. His advice here (and remember he speaks as if the goal is to stifle imagination) is to not teach grammar or, if one must, to only pretend to teach it. I really wish he had expanded upon what he means by this. It seems that much of what he would he would term “pretending to teach grammar.” But I am not sure I understand what it would look like to really teach grammar. From what I can gather, the pretending looks like learning a lot of disjointed, picky rules.

I have noticed in my own homeschooling that what we teach often does not seem to match the kind of writing we find in great books. For example, we tell children to use lots of good descriptive adjectives, but the sentences they come up with are not what I would call impressive writing. They are overburdened with details when they are not necessary. Similarly, we rail against run-on sentences but as far as I can see great books are full of them. This is the example Esolen uses as well. He quotes a long passage from Henry Fielding and then says, “But teachers will undoubtedly call that carefully structured sentence, building to its absurd climax, a run-on, because it happens to be long” (p. 19). But what can we do to teach children to write well other than expose them to great writing? Esolen implies there is a way, but he does not give me enough information to know what he means. Admittedly, his book is not meant to be a guide to teaching grammar.  Still, I would like to think more about this. How can we teach grammar in a way that really produces good writing? Any ideas?


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