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12 February 2018

On Classical Education: Repetition and the Habit of Attention

Comparing the Classical Education maxim "repetitio mater memoriae" and the Charlotte Mason method's Habit of Attention.

This post is part of a series:
Character is the True Aim
Cultivation of Godly Character
What is a Student? 
Make Haste Slowly
Much Not Many
Ordered Affections
Repetition is the Mother of Memory
Repetition and the Habit of Attention (this post)
Embodied Learning
Songs Chants and Jingles
Wonder and Curiosity
Educational Virtues
By Teaching We Learn
Classical Education is Like a Table

At first glance, there seems to be some tension between the Classical dictum "Repeptito mater memoriae," -repetition is the mother of memory- and Charlotte Mason's principles concerning the Habit of Attention, in particular the practice she recommends of requiring the student to narrate after only a single reading. She's teaching the habit of attention with this and other activities that she recommends. But I don't think that the principles are in conflict at all. In reality, Miss Mason uses repetition extensively in its place, though once again, she tends to frame things in slightly different terms than what I find classical educators are familiar with. However, an examination of the principles at work in both systems reinforces my belief that a classical education and a Charlotte Mason education are, in essence, the same thing. The issues seem to be more a question of what to call things, rather than an actual conflict of principle.

Miss Mason is well known for her commentary on habits -- and what are habits, but actions that have been repeated until they are automatic? 

"Habit is ten natures." 
-Charlotte Mason 1:96

In fact, this concept of habit is pivotal in her philosophy, and she writes extensively about how to use habit as a lever to lift the character of the student -- which is to say that she writes extensively about the need for and uses of repetition. She's not the only one to have observed the importance of habit in the formation of character. Another speaker put it this way:

[T]here is a relationship between thoughts, actions, habits, and characters. After the language of the Bible we might well say: “Thought begat Action; and Action took unto himself Habit; and Character was born of Habit; and Character was expressed through Personality. And, Character and Personality lived after the manner of their parents.” A more conventional way of linking the above concepts is found in the words of C. A. Hill: “We sow our thoughts, and we reap our actions; we sow our actions, and we reap our habits; we sow our habits, and we reap our characters; we sow our characters, and we reap our destiny”
-Elder Carlos E. Asay, Flaxen Threads

However, she also talks about the "habit of attention" -- and one of the ways that she talks about building this habit is to limit repetition in certain circumstances.

[A] second reading would be fatal because no one can give full attention to that which he has heard before and expects to hear again. Attention will go halt all its days if we accustom it to the crutch.
-Charlotte Mason 6:258

It's ok  - good, even- to have this kind of tension between ideas: a clothes line with no tension holds no clothes, and when you look closely, all principles have a twin that stands in opposition. (I discussed Paul's pairing of Grace and works here.) In this case, it is apparent that our teaching needs to take into account both ideas: if we never repeat anything, then we have cut ourselves off from deep learning. I shudder to think of trying to learn Japanese with only single exposures to new vocabulary. And I cannot imagine the loss of being allowed only a single reading of scripture in a lifetime! On the other hand, Miss Mason is correct that endless repetition will encourage inattentiveness. Brandy has an excellent discussion of this at Afterthoughts. Among other things, she says:

We cannot learn that to which we do not attend. Period. There are no exceptions. No one has ever learned anything to which he did not first pay attention. If we know we have a second, third, or tenth chance at a subject, we are apt to become lazy.

I think that Brandy gets right at the heart of it when she says that we're guarding against laziness, intellectual and otherwise. Which brings us back to the fact that education is, first and always, about developing the character. And knowing that it's about character helps us to figure out how the principles guide the practice: when we look at a situation, we can ask ourselves: "Will repetition here help to deepen a relationship with a passage, a poem, an idea, or will it become a crutch that enfeebles the will and encourages intellectual sloppiness?" If they are going to narrate, it's a pretty sure bet that repetition is not helpful. But memorization of poetry, of passages from the Commonplace Book, and especially of scripture -- these are the sorts of things that repetition causes to sink into our souls, so that they are gradually written on the "fleshy tablets of our hearts".


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