As I've mentioned, I'm teaching a college intro to religion class next semester, and one of the books we'll be reading is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which I first read in a high school religion elective class. I don't remember our discussions with any specificity, but I know that we engaged in them, because for a year there were maybe twelve of us sitting in a circle, and that's what we did ~ discuss. And we wrote lots of papers.
And, as I've also realized, that little book has had a huge impact upon my approach to life. As I re-read it last month, it felt completely familiar.
I've read quite of bit of Holocaust literature in the years since, have heard a number of Holocaust survivors speak, and taught many of their grandchildren in my years as an educator in an Orthodox Jewish school. With each such encounter, my understanding of how to survive trauma and find meaning in apparent meaninglessness has been strengthened.
Much of that writing has been of help to me in the past two and one-half years. Dietrich Bonheoffer, whom we also read in that long-ago high school class. Alfred Delp, S.J., whom I discovered only a few years ago.
Discussion. Reinforcement. Application.
How we learn.
In seminary, my first required Old Testament course was presented entirely in a lecture format, and the assessment was entirely objective - multiple choice, fill in the blank, and . . . The Map. Our professor is an archaeologist, and made an (important) point: understanding the terrain makes a difference in our understanding of the story. We had to memorize the map of ancient Israel which, for those of us of a certain age, was quite a challenge. I put a xeroxed copy, which contained the 50 or so geographical and place names we needed to know, on my bathroom door, and learned about 5 a week. Ten or so minutes a day most days. Probably ten-fifteen hours over the course of the term to learn the whole thing.
The lecturing was brilliantly done, and I have a thick binder of notes that will serve me well throughout my ministerial teaching and preaching life. No doubt about that. But did I retain anything? In the absence of personal engagement of any kind?
No discussion; no essays. No subsequent encounter. And I haven't been to Israel, which would no doubt make a difference.
I'm preaching on Jesus' baptism tomorrow, and I've decided to do a bit of Jordan River geography with the children.
I realized this morning that I know no Jordan River geography.
So I googled "Jordan River map" and looked at a map of ancient Israel and realized:
Nothing. No retention whatever. I could not to save my life have identified a single thing on that map (other than the river running through it). It was as if I'd never laid eyes on it before.
Memorization. That's all we did.
NOT how we learn.
(I'm giving the kids messages from a bottle - slips of paper with different names for them to look up on a map so they can report their findings back to me next week. I know they won't retain the facts for long. But maybe one of two of them will remember the fun of geographical investigation.)