Teaching New Masons How to Fish

By: Steven B. VanSlyck, PM, MPS

“If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” —Ancient Chinese Proverb

In Masonry, as in any other part of life, the greater satisfaction and pleasure comes from meeting a challenge and succeeding with one’s own resources and by one’s own efforts. By the same token, nothing given is ever treasured nearly as much as something worked for and earned. Yet—in Masonry as in any other part of life—there is often an unfortunate tendency to rely on the effort of others. This would be troubling enough, but we are so content to be passive observers, that we don’t even read our neighbor’s homework, let alone turn it in as our own. However expensive ignorance may be, one cannot argue with its apparent bliss. Thus, through a succession of ages, are transmitted unimpaired the most excellent tenets of our Institution. Every new mason, however, comes to the Fraternity with a desire to learn. The opportunity to nourish and shape this desire is fleeting, and is strongest just before and after receiving the Entered Apprentice degree. For most masons, it is during this time more than any other that one may discover a mind which is curious about and receptive to the best that Masonry has to teach. This is particularly true when it comes to teaching the new mason how to be successful in finding Masonry in and for himself. For centuries the most effective way of teaching people how to think has been to show them how to ask questions of themselves. Traditionally this is done by way of the Socratic Method. In one form or another the Socratic Method combined with self-study constitute the basic systems of formal education. Self-study enables one to absorb facts and self-questioning enables one to consider, connect, and relate those facts to each other and draw appropriate conclusions. In showing new masons, who are sometimes very young men, how to learn about Masonry, the writer uses a typical masonic education question to take them through the process of self-questioning. He asks the student, “What is a token?” Nine out of new apprentices will respond with the answer provided by the ritual. One supposes that perhaps one out of a hundred might have heard of Mackey’s Encyclopedia and might offer a more considered response. Fewer still consider the question outside the context of Freemasonry and thus answer the question asked instead of the question heard. Teaching the new mason how to approach this question gives him a working tool that can be used to approach any mystery. After a bit of back and forth after which the new member eventually indicates that he does not know or is not sure, it can go something like this: “Have you ever been to a movie theater?” “Yes.” “How did you get in?” “I paid for a ticket.” “What did you do with the ticket?” “I gave it to the ticket taker, who tore it—“ “That’s right. You gave it to the ticket taker. Have you ever turned the ticket over and read what was on the back side.” “No.” “Well, if you had you would have seen the ‘small print,’ which probably read something like this: ‘The license represented by this ticket entitles the bearer to admission to one showing of the event identified on the face hereof....’ Do you know what a license is?” “It let’s you do something.” “That’s right. In this case it let you see the movie. What would’ve happened if you’d lost the ticket?” “I wouldn’t have been able to get in.” “That’s right. Now. Have you ever been to New York?” “No.” “You know it’s pretty crowded, right?” “Yes.” “Lot’s of mass transit, though. Taxies, busses, and something else...?” “The subway.” “That’s right, the subway. And how do you get on to the subway?” “Buy a subway token.” At this point if you look just above the new member’s head you will notice that a little 25-watt light bulb appeared there and turned on. “And what do you do with the token?” “Put it in the token slot to unlock the turnstile.” “That’s right.    So what do the movie ticket and the subway token have in common?” “Both of them prove you have the right to go someplace.” The light bulb brightens to 40 watts. Now the conversation above is highly condensed, but what the writer typically does is draw the student through the similarities and differences between the movie ticket, the subway token, and perhaps some well-known fictional example of Our Hero Who Finds the Magic Key and Saves the Day. The commonality of the token in each case, however, is that it is something which can be touched or held by the bearer and entitles him to some special privilege. The student is taken through these examples and concludes that a token is tangible evidence of a right. His mental light bulb is now at 75 watts, and that may seem bright enough, but the point of any lesson in Arts & Sciences Lodge is application, and to ask the next question. The next question in Masonry is always, “What does this mean?” So, what does it mean, in Masonry, to say that a token is “tangible evidence of a right”? The back-and-forth between student and teacher continues, and they return to look again at the original question and answer. We all know the rote answer to the question, “What is a token?” If we then say that a token is “tangible proof of a right,” which is to say proof that you can hold in your hand or touch, then the only question left is what rights are represented by the token I give you, or that you give me? And what relationship might there be between rights, on the one hand, and obligations, on the other? The writer will leave you to consider these questions for yourself.

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