By John Bizzack, Ph.D.

Vince Lombardi was the legendary coach for the Green Bay Packers from 1959-1968 and then coached the Washington Redskins for one year.  His career stats included 96 wins to 34 losses, six Division championships, two conference championships, and winning the first two Super Bowls. He was named Coach of the Year in 1959, was inducted into the hall of fame in 1971, and is the namesake for the current Super Bowl trophy. 

The financial viability and the very existence of the Green Bay Packers franchise were in jeopardy in prior to Lombardi being selected as Head Coach and General Manager. The Packers had not enjoyed a winning season since 1944. Lombardi, after studying and assessing the problems and issues surrounding the team for years knew exactly how to craft a winning team - one that focused on the basic principles of the game and then capitalized on the talents of the players.

In a short, but powerful pre-season speech given to the players when he arrived for his first season, he set the tone for his tenure as head coach by holding up a football so that everyone in the room could see it and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

Lombardi, to the surprise of the players, started from scratch. He made it clear that a fundamental understanding of the basics, starting with what a football looks like, followed by more detailed instructions about the basics of the game was essential for a team to play as a team.  Following “Gentlemen, this is a football,” he took the team outside and showed them the field, explaining where the out-of-bounds lines and the end zones were followed by more basics of the game, explaining rules and organization of players.  Lombardi spent valuable time reminding and coaching the players on the essentials of the game and the importance of not only executing the fundamentals, but understanding them.

There were few rookies on this team particular team. Many had successful college careers, and there were several future members of the Football Hall of Fame. The question is why did Lombardi spend so much time on the basics of the game when everyone knew them?  Repetition is the reason; repetition and the necessity of football players to genuinely understand the game of football.

Max McGee, a veteran wide receiver for the Packers and the player who would later score the first touchdown in the first Super Bowl game, sat listening in the back of the room that day. When Lombardi said, “Gentlemen, this is a football,” McGee held up his hand to draw Lombardi’s attention and said, “Uh…Coach, you’re going a little too fast…” bringing the room and Lombardi to laughter, shaping the respect for and bond with each other that the team and Lombardi developed.

Learning to Learn

Learning is often simply defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.  We like to think when we learn something it sticks with us, but that, of course, is not always the case. We also assume people learn at the same pace, which is clearly not the case either. And, there’s always an assumption that when we are formally taught about something, that something is accurate.

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Our attitudes and expectations affect how we learn. If we believe that all we need to do is learn “just enough” to meet or reach our goals, then there’s a tendency to drift from there because we believe that is all we needed to do.  Success in any field and in our personal lives only survives by ongoing education, learning, and mind-stretching thoughts. Anything less, then we have shortchanged ourselves.  In the end, what matters is the accuracy and power of what we know and how we apply it.

We don’t become professional athletes by merely watching those who are. We don’t learn to read or write well by osmosis. In fact, we don’t learn to learn much at all without a grasp of the basics, and we don’t master the basics of anything without practice.

Every time we learn something new, our brain changes in a pretty substantial way. In turn, this makes other parts of our life easier because the benefits of learning stretch further than just being good at something. [1] Learning a new skill has all kinds of unexpected benefits, including improving working memory, better verbal intelligence, and increased language skills. [2] Likewise, as you learn a new skill, the skill gets easier to do.  In other words, science has confirmed what we have always found to be true through our anecdotal experience: practice makes perfect.

Of course, if we learn something incorrectly or learn only certain parts of a system or process made up of several components required to make it work correctly, we’ll still end up with a new skill or awareness and knowledge, but we won’t have all the dots connected.  If we learn to ride a bicycle and manage to keep our balance, but receive no instruction about or learns the importance of how and when to apply to brakes, we are likely to find riding a bicycle not only difficult, but dangerous. If we learn to swim, but fail to learn and appreciate the importance of treading water the same consequence applies.

Some “rules of learning” require us to recognize certain limitations. For example, whether we like it or not, gravity will always override our interest, wishes, wants and dreams of flying by flapping our arms. If we don’t understand or appreciate the in inevitability of the laws of gravity, then there will be consistent consequences each time we take a step. The point is that gravity is part of the never changing law of nature and to use gravity to our advantage, not our detriment, necessitates awareness and a basic working knowledge of its existence.

The Craft’s Achilles Heel

If there is a heel of Achilles in the structure of Freemasonry, or in the practice of the Craft, it lies in the failure of the Lodge to hold the interest or to educate the newly raised candidate in the degrees of Freemasonry. [3]

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One of the primary purposes of Freemasonry is the education of its members.  Unfortunately, as the pressures of time and business conspire to constrain the intellectual activity of our Lodges, real Masonic education and inquiry are among the first pursuits to be jettisoned from our regular agendas.  Education and reflection on Masonic issues used to be much more of a central part of the business a Masonic Lodge than it is today. [4]

As Masons of course, we’d like to think that the “basics” of Freemasonry are consistently and firmly embedded within all members of the fraternity. We would like to believe that Masons, once initiated, not only grasps the profundity of our ritual, but from that point forward enthusiastically pursues more Light.  It’s inspiring to accept as true that all brothers are given the same basic instruction and with that are set on the course of their own respective journey toward applying and practicing the precepts of the basic teachings of the Craft. The very idea that all members have a sound foundation of Masonic education is as stirring as Freemasonry itself, but it is naïve to believe this is the case. 

While there are as many interpretations of Freemasonry beyond our core ideologies as there are Masons, it is not the interpretations or the practice of speculative Masonry that is concerning. No, the concern is the many interpretations and practices of speculative Freemasonry do not all stem from the same basic understanding and awareness of the fundamental system of Freemasonry.

“The very idea that all members have a sound foundation of Masonic education is as stirring as Freemasonry itself, but it is naïve to believe this is the case.”

While speculation is clearly an important component of the system of our Craft, we must still have a basic understanding about which we are encouraged to speculate.  If a member who has not received a sound basic instruction and passes on only what little he may have received, how are we to expect Masons to actually speculate on the depth and breadth of the genius of the entire system of Freemasonry?

Sure, a member can search on his own without basic instruction or even receiving anything more than ritual as his “education,” but are all members going to do that? Are all members capable of doing that?  We know the answer is, no.

We don’t learn to do much at all with success without understanding, being aware of and being taught the basics of anything. Why would we expect Freemasonry to be any different?

Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers is a party game in which one person whispers a message to the person next to them and the story is then passed progressively to several others, with inaccuracies accumulating as the game goes on. When the last person receives the message, it has been filtered through everyone in the room, so the final version typically bears little or no relation to the original message. 

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In a general sense, Chinese Whispers illustrate how the everyday “miss-telling” of stories passed on orally can easily end up distorted by misinterpretation, misperception, manner of expression and certainly by abbreviating the original message.

Freemasonry is, of course, nothing like a party game, but it should be evident that learning about Freemasonry, particularly the basics, should not take on the characteristics of this game either. The best way to prevent that is to assure each person to whom the “message” is relayed is given the same basic and exact message. How they wish to individually interpret it once they pass on the same basic and exact message is their right of speculation as a Mason.

Regardless, we can see how the example of Chinese Whispers has indeed affected Masonic education since at least the 1960s.  There are members who did not receive the basics.  There are other reasons aside from the example of Chinese Whispers for this too of course, but we cannot ignore the fact that Masonic education, or lack of it, for whatever the reason, is responsible for the breadth of the multiplicity we find in our basic understanding of Freemasonry around the nation.

Prescriptions and Nuts and Bolts

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Many remedies have been suggested for what is perceived as the ills of Freemasonry, particularly since the 1960s. The most consistent “remedy,” however, supported by studies, surveys, Masonic scholars, writers and practitioners at all levels throughout the United States collectively points to one thing: the need to address the inconsistent and/or lack of basic Masonic education.

Much has been done to address the matter, but decades, and at least two generations of members have the influence and strong viewpoints of past leadership, local lodge subcultures and its demographics with which to contend. Changing attitudes and outlook about the need for basic Masonic education is a daunting challenge when within existing membership there stands a firm view that there is nothing wrong with whatever basic Masonic education they received in the first place.

The hard, cold fact is that there is no central university of Freemasonry; no uniform basic Masonic education that all members are provided, and certainly no process of uniform instruction. There never has been. Some say this is the core of the problems surrounding Masonic education and why there is a multiplex of understanding about the Craft, within the Craft. Others say that is the beauty of the Craft: all members are free to embrace and pursue their own interpretation. But what happens when interpretations are based on weak foundations? What happens when the manner of instruction and what we pass on in our practices is in error because of that weak foundation?

Regardless of our respective viewpoint, we still can’t get around the fact that Freemasonry is a system – a system designed to be most successful when operated as such.  Part of this system is wholesome instruction and education: the literal nuts and bolts of the Craft.

If there is a solution that works broadly for the Craft when it comes to the issue of basic Masonic education, we must still first define if Masonry at the lodge level wants to be a philosophical and initiatic society or a fraternal organization that does good deeds, or perhaps some combination.

Some argue that without the philanthropic and social parts, such a lodge is still Masonry, yet others firmly believe if the philosophical and social parts are left out then a lodge is nothing more than an organization similar to the Elks, the Lions, Kiwanis, the Rotary Club, thus no longer Masonry, but another social club with a different name. As Masonic writer Stephen DaFoe calls it, “Rotary with aprons.”

The complexity in addressing the topical issue of basic Masonic education is multiplied by many factors today. The problems surrounding inconsistent or lack of basic Masonic education did not spring up overnight – it began to saturate the fraternity over a period of decades, so it is understandable that effectively addressing the matter will also likely take decades.

Depending on the jurisdiction, some solutions may be found at the Grand Lodge level where uniformity on the basics may be organized and coordinated. Much more likely, this issue is best addressed at the lodge level where members who want and seek the basics can indeed find an effective way of providing it.

Materials Readily Available to use for Basic Masonic Education

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