Vol. XLIII No. 11 — November 1965

The Future of Masonic Education

Conrad Hahn

This Short Talk is not “a prediction of things to come." Nor is it a suggested program of Masonic education for constituent or grand lodges to adopt. It merely presents a few observations about Masonic education and the future.

Our ideas are like our children. We give them birth; we nurture and develop them carefully. But they have the perfectly natural habit of growing up and leaving home, to change and modify themselves in new environments and unforeseen situations. Only in this vague and seemingly capricious manner may these thoughts have any effect on the future.

Masonic education (in which term are included all our fraternal activities to instruct, to inform, to teach, to stimulate, and to enlighten our brethren) is at present largely in the hands of two principal groups; these may conveniently (but not entirely satisfactorily) be referred to as the custodians of the ritual and the committees on Masonic information or education.

Of the two, the custodians of the ritual have a longer tradition of organized efforts to instruct members and officers of the constituent lodges. Their objective has been clear and well-defined — to see that the language of the ritual is transmitted unimpaired to each succeeding generation. The greatest weakness that has developed in this educational activity is the narrowness with which “proficiency” has been regarded. The outcome has been, generally speaking, an almost exclusive emphasis on “perfect memorization” and on repetition of movements precisely performed.

Ritualists should be equally concerned with understanding and interpretation. The Middle Chamber lecture, for example, is a prodigious feat of memory for the average officer to deliver unassisted. But even when he can do it “letter perfect,” it is dull and profitless if he delivers that lecture without understanding its eighteenth century language and without expressing by means of that understanding his admiration for intellectual attainments and scholarship.

Furthermore, would not some skill with dramatic techniques (phrasing, variation of pitch and tone, gestures, etc.) help him to put the message across better? A definition of “proficiency” should include such skills as well as perfect memorization. Members of the Scottish Rite have learned the value of dramatic presentations of their ritual. They have much to demonstrate to the ritualists of Symbolic Masonry.

One may meet an occasional iconoclast who says that “the ritualists have had their day.” There are also some “modernizers,” who would have us shorten the ritual and re-write it in language suitable to the Atomic Age. Most of these commentators seem to evade the real issue involved in this problem of Masonic learning — how to present the ritual so that it conveys meaning and helps to inspire moral action by every symbolic seeker after light. This is one area in which Masonic education will broaden its scope and extend its researches in the future. (This, however, is not a prediction; it is merely a personal hope!)

Masonic education in the hands of committees or officers charged with imparting light on the history, symbolism, laws, etc., of the Craft, is a more recent development, although it certainly is not new. The 1920s marked the first big wave of organized efforts to educate Masons about their fraternity beyond the actual ritual and lectures of the three degrees.

Masonic periodicals in the early twenties were filled with contributions on this subject: “Masonic Education: What Should It Consist Of?”; “Why Masonic Education?”; “Scope of Masonic Education"; “A Lecture Course in Masonic Education”; “Seeking a Definition of Masonic Education”; “Grand Lodge Endorses Masonic Education”; “The Real Object of Masonic Education”; and many an essay entitled simply “Masonic Education,” one such having been written by the famous Joseph Fort Newton, which appeared in the Masonic News of Detroit, Michigan, in September 1924.

The 1930s saw the establishment in many grand lodges of standing or special committees on Masonic education, information, or culture — or whatever term was chosen to avoid the word education. Among the first fruits of the labors of these groups were instructional devices and educational programs for lodge meetings, as well as leaflets and pamphlets on the history and symbolism of the Craft. Candidate instructional booklets were the natural outgrowth of these efforts, because the need for individualized instruction was soon apparent. The last decade has seen an accelerating production of handbooks and manuals for officers and committeemen, because it has become obvious that in spite of all the Masonic information disseminated in the past four decades, leadership has not been developed sufficiently within the lodges, and without good leaders no program can be made effective.

This sketchy backward look may not seem appropriate to a discourse on the future of Masonic education, but it may have this value: an understanding of what has been done will at least suggest what we may build on, what has been achieved, and what need not be repeated, as well as what may have been lacking and to what we might apply our educational efforts in the future. At this point, it seems safe to make one prediction, although it is really only a statement of fact. As long as Freemasonry remains Freemasonry, educational programs such as we have at present will continue, because the individual member needs them.

A recent “new development” in Masonic education is the action of the grand master of Washington, M.W. Brother George H. Bovingdon. He has called upon every lodge in his jurisdiction to give sincere study and extended consideration, including debate, to the address of the grand orator, John D. Blankinship, which was delivered at grand lodge in Bellingham last June. “I want this oration,” announced the grand master, “to be the starting point for an analysis in depth of Masonry in the state of Washington.”

All lodges have been asked to plan a meeting at which the oration will be the principal focus of attention. Discussion panels are to be appointed and one member designated to record a full synopsis of the panel’s presentations, the subsequent discussions, and a summary of specific recommendations that the lodge may decide to make. All these materials, from every lodge, are to be in the grand master’s hands by October 30. What is happening in Washington opens up vistas into new activities and objectives for Masonic education.

Concerned over Masonry’s declining influence and prestige, Grand Orator Blankinship proposed a number of steps that Freemasonry should take to recapture its vitality and effectiveness. Unfortunately, the least important suggestion will probably receive the greatest attention, because he advocates an extensive shortening and modernization of the ritual. “This job,” he says, “is too important to be delegated to amateurs who would be able to work on it only part-time. It should be turned over to professionals, skilled in the communication of ideas and adult education, who would work at it full time.”

The antagonism that such a proposal will probably arouse may draw attention away from more valuable suggestions that should interest every brother concerned with Masonic education. A few quotations from Brother Blankinship’s address reveal these.

I think men want, and Masonry should give them, an opportunity . . . for education, particularly in their relations to God, their fellowmen, and their institutions; and for a means to decide upon and take responsible group action on current issues, . . . Freemasonry does not compete effectively for men’s minds and souls.

We should concentrate on human relations, teaching our members the duties that all men owe to God, to their fellowmen (not just to their fellow-Masons), and to their institutions, governmental, religious, educational, fraternal. . . . Rather than retreating from the problems of mankind, Masonry should advance upon them.

Our objective should be to assist mankind in solving the problems that beset him. . . . History has demonstrated that groups of men who together think out responsible answers to human problems wield an influence for good far beyond their numbers.

Let us make lodge forums for discussions of such questions. . . . Let us bring the community into the lodge and at the same time take the lodge into the community. This will require skill. Lodges . . . should be assisted and advised by professionals employed by grand lodge. It will also require hard work, but it will be worth it. Masonry will again play an active role as it did in those colonial days about which we now boast.

Grand Orator Blankinship is really saying that Masonic education should not be limited to Masons. He suggests that if Masonry is an educational institution, it should be educating mankind, not merely Masons. The range of activities suggested by that idea is enormous.

No thoughtful Mason should dismiss this suggestion before giving it careful and ex tended thought, because one of the most important reasons for the so-called "decline in Masonic influence” must be sought in the statement of one fraternal critic, "Nobody’s paying much attention to Freemasonry because it’s not saying anything worth listening to.”

Such a commentator is not denying the value of Freemasonry’s teachings; he is trying to suggest that the Fraternity is not relating its principles to modern knowledge, modern attitudes, the hopes and fears of modern man. Masons repeat their ideals with zealous determination, but they don’t relate them to modern thinking and modern conditions.

This suggests that Masonic educators need to redefine their philosophy of Masonic education in terms that show an awareness of the prevailing intellectual attitudes reflected in the thinking of the articulate voices of our time, in the arts, in religion, in politics, in economic and social situations, in education, and especially in the communication enterprises.

Generally speaking, many young people live in a spiritual vacuum. They are encouraged to seek material wealth and luxury; but it is exceptional to find them given conceptions of higher or nobler purposes in life, of genuine patriotism, for example. The love of one’s homeland and the love of God are ridiculed far more widely than we realize.

He who endeavors to defend long-cherished ideals, morals in politics, literature, and art, or the ideals of a militant faith, is frequently labeled a Fascist or a Nazi, an “enemy of democracy.” Too much of the prevailing mood of our time is cynicism and nihilism; many who would speak up against those philosophies are denied access to press, radio, and television.

He who advocates a moral and spiritual re-birth of the world and an ideological march against Russian communism runs the risk of being called a "war-monger,” a "medieval crusader”! The acceptable crusader must stick to contemporary social programs, some of which are politically motivated and therefore suspect.

Masonic teaching is basically a re-affirmation of the absolute necessity of morality in all the relationships that exist and develop in the processes we call civilization. Morality is a misunderstood word and is too often limited to the concept of the relationships between sexes. True morality grows out of recognition that men must commit themselves to some fundamental principles of action and behavior if the fabric of civilization is to have any durability and meaning. Change there will be, from time to time, as light is added to light; but without commitment to some standards of rectitude and justice, there can be no faith in the value of cooperative efforts to build a society that will fit a definition of civilization. The spiritual tragedy of modern man lies in his fear that society has discarded such faith.

Freemasonry obligates men; it commits men to some fundamental moral attitudes and principles. Whether it succeeds in transforming a verbal exercise of commitment into a determined life-long pattern of behavior aimed at moral steadfastness, impartial truth, and pure justice is a question for Masonic educators to study carefully.

Therein lies the future of Masonic education, in the sense that the “future” is an opportunity, an area for service and development. To develop committed men is one of the essential purposes of Masonic education because the world needs our re-affirmation as much as we do ourselves.

The Masonic Service Association of North America