Memory or Understanding? – Cassiodorus on Learning

Next up in the early church readings on education in The Great Tradition: Cassiodorus.

Cassiodorus was a consul in Rome, living through the drawn-out fall of Rome, and ending up as an advisor to Theodoric along with Boethius. He was of noble birth and a devout Christian. Late in his life he founded a monastery with the express purpose of preserving ancient culture as he watched Rome’s disintegration.

His monastery didn’t last beyond his own lifetime, but his works excerpted in The Great Tradition were exhortations to his monks, whose job it was to copy both Scripture and Greek and Roman literature.

Memory is good; understanding is better.

Classical education is big on memory work, and is sometimes criticized for this focus.

Turns out modern educators are not the first to turn this topic into a debate.

Cassiodorus praises the role of memory in education:

“What is fixed and rooted in the depths of memory is hard to remove.”

The context of this quote is the learning of Scripture. After all, what else is better to have fixed and rooted in the depths of our memory? What do we want to be at the foundation level of our (and our children’s) understanding?

Memory is important because what we plant through it takes root and will grow.

But Cassiodorus doesn’t praise all memory, nor only memory:

“Happy indeed is the mind that has stored such a mysterious treasure in the depths of memory, with God’s help; but much happier the mind that knows the ways of understanding from its energetic investigation.”

Memory is good, but understanding is better. We can start with memory, but if we end there we will come up short. What we must seek is understanding – and rich, deep understanding comes from “energetic investigation.”

What ways do we build energetic investigation into our days? Do we encourage the investigation of our children or do we end up postponing it because it’s an extravagant use of time? Does this same roadblock stop us from our own energetic investigations?

We must beware cutting short the search for understanding, because it is the food of curiosity:

“The more one understands, the more one seeks.”

Understanding is never fully satisfied. Once we get a taste, we realize we’ll never get enough, we realize we only have a small beginning. We want more.

We should not neglect the role of memory in education, but we must also remember that understanding is the higher goal. Memory is done in service to understanding.

Whatever memory does not result in understanding – in wisdom, not merely knowledge – is memory spent in vain.

How do you encourage energetic investigation in your homeschool day? Please share in the comments!


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