Perhaps the first question one must ask with regard to Masonic education is—just what do we discuss during sessions of Masonic education? In this post, I consider several answers to this question. In what follows, let it be understood that I am focusing on Masonic education such as it takes place within the tyled Lodge—that is, during the Stated Communication, rather than at other events, such as presentations at open lodge dinners.
‘Practicing the Ritual’ as Masonic Education
One idea is that Masonic education is training in the technique of the ritual. This idea is so widespread that it might even be described as ‘Masonic Education Version 1.0.’ So it is that we hold Lodges of Instruction to demonstrate how to conduct the initiatory rituals of Freemasonry. Some jurisdictions hold special occasions where Master Masons may inspect the books where the rituals of that jurisdiction are typed out on the page in plain English. (In Florida, these sessions are called ‘Open Books.’ These sessions are a godsend for brethren trying to learn, for example, the Lectures of the three Degrees.)
Education in the execution of the ritual is fundamental and crucial to Freemasonry. Ritual that is executed well, smoothly, with expressiveness, has a beneficial effect on everyone involved: the candidates, the quality of whose experience should be our first concern; the brethren on the sidelines; and even the degree team itself. Without the ritual, in a very real sense we have no Freemasonry, and no Masonic symbolism.
All of this notwithstanding, I feel that training in the execution of the ritual is a good place to start Masonic education, and a bad place to end it. The ritual has a point, an objective, and that is the transformation of the individuals witnessing that ritual (including those experiencing it as candidates, as members of the degree team, or as those ‘on the sidelines’). That objective is only reached when the ritual is not only experienced, but understood on a deep level. I say more about this below.
‘Masonic History’ as Masonic Education
There are those who consider instruction in Masonic history as Masonic education. Masonic history is certainly fascinating; it is also complicated, and everyone needs some sort of instruction in order to understand it, even in terms of the main currents of Masonic history, let alone its more obscure currents and eddies. One can make the legitimate claim that one cannot really understand the symbolism and ritual of Freemasonry without knowing something of the historical roots from whence Masonry sprang.
With all due respect to the valuable study of Masonic history, I do not think that historical studies are in and of themselves transformative. As I have mentioned, individual transformation is the objective of Freemasonry. In Masonic Education version 2.0, the study of Masonic history has some value, in order to frame the study of the symbolism. However, historical studies are not of primary importance in Masonic Education 2.0. A session of Masonic education focused on history may be good, both to frame later sessions that will deal with symbolism, and as a change of pace. A presentation about a historical event may also be excellent for an open Lodge dinner, and that is were I would prefer to see them most of the time.
‘Masonic Personalities’ as Masonic Education
In many lodges, there is an interest in learning about Masonic personalities: famous Masons of the past and present. In my lodge in Florida, for instance, we plan to have a presentation at the open dinner before our second Stated Communication in March, regarding the topic of “Masonic Astronauts,” delivered by a member of our lodge who works for NASA.
Here again, the point of Freemasonry is transformation, and the point of Masonic education is to assist in that endeavor. A discussion of Masonic personalities, however diverting, seems unlikely to further that objective. A topic like this is highly appropriate as a dinner presentation.
There are exceptions to this. If someone is thinking of focusing on some Masonic personality, and how this person helped change society for the better, with a special focus on his Masonic activities, such a biographical presentation might indeed be appropriate for Masonic Education 2.0.
I would also recommend that, when a Masonic Education instructor is teaching about Masonic symbolism and philosophy, he might consider using examples from the lives of people associated with Freemasonry as illustrations. For example, in a recent session of Masonic education focused on the symbolism of the journey of the candidate during the degree rituals, I made mention of the life of Elias Ashmole, a man whose life exemplified the union of spiritual concerns with scholarly concerns—which was relevant to a point in the lesson.
‘Helping to Interpret and Apply the Symbolism’ as Masonic Education
Now, we come to the idea that education in interpreting and applying the symbolism can be Masonic education. As I mentioned above, “[Masonic initiatory] ritual has a point, an objective, and that is the transformation of the individuals witnessing that ritual (including those experiencing it as candidates, as members of the degree team, or as those ‘on the sidelines’). That objective is only reached when the ritual is not only experienced, but understood on a deep level.” That understanding may come about over a long period of time—indeed, it may take a lifetime—but that is all right; in a real sense, all of one’s lifetime is meant to serve as an initiation. However, understanding and enlightenment do not happen just by experiencing the ritual; it comes about through exploring the symbolism of the ritual, through pondering it, considering its meaning and various approaches to its interpretation, thinking about how to apply it in one’s life. If training in the execution of the ritual is ‘Masonic Education version 1.0,’ then helping brethren to interpret and apply the symbolism is ‘Masonic Education version 2.0.’ In future blog entries, I shall give suggestions for resources for brethren to consult to learn more in this area.
‘Responding to Anti-Masonry’ as Masonic Education
There is one other subject that I really consider relevant to Masonic education. This involves teaching the brethren about the charges made by anti-Masons, and how one might respond to them.
I addressed this matter at some length in an article in The Philalethes magazine/journal (“How Should Masons Respond to Anti-Masonry?”, August 2007). In summary, I am aware that there has been a tradition for a long time that Freemasons simply did not respond to anti-Masonry. However, times have changed. Anti-Masonic writers are now making accusations that are vile, highly inflammatory, and apparently widely believed. (One author has us committing child abuse, and doing the will of Satanists and/or reptilian aliens from outer space. No kidding! And his books sell very well, too.) We simply must respond to these charges, or we run the risk of giving the impression that we have no response to make.
Teaching brethren about some of the more prominent incidents of the history of anti-Masonry (the Morgan or Anti-Masonic episode in American history; the Nazi persecution of Freemasons in Europe), and the more prominent anti-Masonic accusations (the Taxil hoax, and the accusations of contemporary authors) would be a good use of some sessions of Masonic education. In future blog entries, I shall give suggestions for resources for brethren to consult to learn more in this area, too.
In my opinion, the focus of Masonic Education Version 2.0 should be helping brethren to explore the interpretation and application of Masonic symbolism. Training in the execution of the ritual is a basis for all Masonic education, but it is only a basis. Some training in Masonic history can be useful to frame training in the interpretation and application of the ritual. Some training in responding to anti-Masonry is also worthwhile for Masonic Education Version 2.0.