Through the miracles of the Internet age, you can find eight-grade graduation exams from over 100 years ago. Could you pass this exam? I'm not sure I could. But how could this be? We have so many more people today who are not only eighth-grade educated or high school educated but college educated than were in yesteryear. Shouldn't we be able to surpass their abilities? Shouldn't we be 100 years smarter than these guys?
It would seem we are not. And while there are many culprits, I'd like to point the bony finger of blame at one man in particular: John Dewey.
Yes, the philosopher and psychologist and purported-all-around-smarty-pants, that John Dewey. Dewey's theories on education revolutionized our school system. What were those theories?
Dewey advocated for an educational approach that emphasized critical thinking over rote memorization. Rather than being able to repeat facts and figures and dates and names, young students, Dewey thought, should be able to engage big ideas and work collectively to learn new material. And many schools followed his suggestions and altered their curricula, downplaying content-building.
Now, there's some merit to his focus. Knowing the bare facts is not sufficient for being a thinking person; one must be able to move beyond them, analyze them, assess them, evaluate them, in order to reach considered conclusions about them. This is necessary for an informed a thoughtful society.
But here's the rub, Johnny: in focusing on critical thinking, you've skipped a step. Critical thinking is step two in the thinking process. Before you can think, you need something to think about. Before you can reflect on knowledge, you must have knowledge.
This was the whole point of memorization to begin with! By memorizing the facts in a particular discipline, you then having the building blocks to construct a historical narrative, or a political argument, or a scientific theory. The facts that are imprinted on your brain through rote are the very material upon which your critical thinking skills operate.
Look at how this worked out in the Church. At two least generations of Catholics have been so poorly catechized that most, according to surveys, can't correctly identify the Church's teaching on the Eucharist, or salvation, or the Trinity. People of my grandparents' age can still rattle off the sentences from the Baltimore Catechism that they learned as children, and would have no trouble with such questions. Some would say that the contents of the Baltimore Catechism were too rudimentary, not "critical" enough, but I say: better something than nothing.