Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dorothy Sayers and Mortimer Adler in Conversation

[This is the second in a series following the first: Dorothy Sayers' "Lost Tools of Learning" in the 21st Century.]

During the same decade that Sayers gave her "Lost Tools of Learning" address in Oxford, England, Mortimer Adler published a flurry of articles and books addressing the ideal nature and structure of a liberal arts education. In the 1940s, Adler published the first edition of the best-seller How to Read a Book as well as several essays on education and The Revolution in Education. He continued to contribute to the conversation about liberal education until his death in 2001.

Adler is perhaps most famous for his work in founding The Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He also instituted the Paideia Proposal and the Paideia Program (now the National Paideia Center), which are specifically devoted to envisioning and facilitating a democratic liberal arts education for K-12 students in the United States.

Rather than give an overview of Adler's entire schema for K-12 education, I'd like to highlight what specifically he offers to the discussion as it relates to Sayer's "Lost Tools of Learning" paradigm.  

Adler agrees with Sayers regarding the goal of a liberal education. For both Sayers and Adler, a liberal arts education should equip the student for a life of on-going learning. In "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice" (1945), Adler describes the "product" of successful liberal arts education as "a good mind, well disciplined in its processes of inquiring and judging, knowing and understanding, and well furnished with knowledge, well cultivated by ideas." And, like Sayers, Adler acknowledges that learning should beget a lifetime of learning. He explains:
"No one can be given a completed liberal education in school, college, or university, for unlike the body, the mind's capacity for growth does not terminate with youth; on the contrary, the mature mind is more educable than the immature." ("Liberal")
Where Sayers is by necessity sparse, Adler offers clarification. In her "Lost Tools" address, Sayers does not give a precise definition of what she refers to as "the tools of learning." What exactly are they anyway? They could be the practice of the seven liberal arts, or perhaps the practice of the first three arts, namely, the trivium. They could be knowledge acquired in the course of study, or attitudes, skills, or habits. If so, it would be helpful to know which knowledge, attitudes, skill, and/or habits we mean. Distinguo! 

When Sayers first introduces the phrase "tools of learning" (seventeenth paragraph), she correlates the tools with thought and language. Language, she says, is "the medium in which thought is expressed," and the three arts of the trivium are correlated with the development of language and thought:
  • The art of Grammar develops knowledge of the structure of language and "of language itself." 
  • The art of Logic (or Dialectic) then teaches the reasoning skills and habits of mind necessary for constructing and evaluating propositional thought expressed in language. 
  • Finally, the art of Rhetoric is concerned with the eloquent expression of ideas in language.
So, at the outset, Sayer's "tools" seem to include both knowledge sets (the grammar of a language or languages) and also skills and habits (of discursive reasoning and creative expression), all organized around communication. 

In this Sayers lines up neatly with her American contemporary. Adler writes of the same subject in his 1941 essay "What Is Basic about English." He explains that the three liberal arts—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—"train a mind for the most characteristic function of human life—communication." These three liberal arts, he elaborates, regulate the operations of the initiation (speaking and writing) and reception (listening and reading) of communication.

For Adler, the distinctions are clear. The three arts of the trivium are concerned with the four operations of communication—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Therefore, the arts are developed through the study of language and literature, namely, spoken and written language.  

The distinctions can be somewhat confusing since the four operations of communication have now become known in some circles as the four "language arts." The four language arts are related to, but distinct from, the three liberal arts that constitute the trivium. According to Adler, the three liberal arts regulate the four language arts/operations.

Because he has honed in on communication as the unifying theme, Adler is also able to offer a reason for the modern practice of expanding the trivium to greater subject matter than the Latin studies that characterized medieval schools. He explains:
"To the extent that teachers of English are concerned with these four operations, they are concerned with the three arts; and in so far as they are properly concerned with these operations, and with their arts, they should transcend every limitation of subject matter, for they should be concerned with every type and every phase of communication." 
The three liberal arts are only effectively taught within the context of actual language and literature, but every subject matter offers fodder for a liberal arts education. 

Sayers agrees that "we must, of course, exercise the mind on other things besides Latin grammar." She recommends that the young student exercise his keen faculties of "observation and memory" on Latin, modern languages, English, history, geography, natural science, math, and theology. Sayers reminds us that Theology is the mistress science which shows "all branches of learning to be inter-related" and "that all knowledge is one."

While all knowledge is one, Adler clarifies that the material selected for study must be worthy and not twaddle. For example, it would be better for students to attend to the work of master artists than to commercial greeting-card art. It would be more valuable for young students to hear the poetry of Robert Frost than to hear only the silly kind of rhymes written solely for children.  Da Vinci is more worthy than Hallmark, Mozart is more worthy than American Idol, and Shakespeare's plays are more worthy than the latest take on the teen vampire romance. 

Adler also observes that the three liberal arts cannot be effectively taught in isolation from one another even if there is somewhat of a hierarchical progression from grammar to logic to rhetoric ("What Is Basic"):
"The three arts cannot be separated, for no one of them is sufficient to regulate good writing or reading. Each requires the supplementation of the other two; the three must interpenetrate one another; they are mutually supporting disciplines for the simple reason that language without thought is nonsense; thought without language is ineffable; and both without consideration of the human context in communication are lacking in direction. (Discourse is not simply rational, but social, for man is not just rational, but socially so.)"
While, as Sayers observes, there tend to be dominant abilities/interests correlated with the different stages of child development, communication always involves grammar, logic, and rhetoric working together. Thus true learning is both interdisciplinary with regard to subject and multifaceted with regard to the liberal arts and the tools employed.

So between Sayers and Adler we gain a clearer view of both the ends and means of a classical liberal arts trivium education. A trivium education aims to impart organized knowledge as well as to develop skills and habits related to listening, speaking, reading, writing, and thinking across a wide range of subject matter. Adler also clarifies a third goal implied in Sayers' address: cultivating a depth of understanding of ideas, concepts, and values. 

As the goals are distinct, so are the means. To assist the acquisition of organized knowledge, Sayers recommends memorization and Adler acknowledges the importance of a limited amount of didactic instruction. Both Sayers and Adler highlight the dialectic as an indispensable means to developing habits of mind and depth of understanding. Adler also recommends coaching through modeling and questioning to cultivate intellectual skills. And all this activity focuses on interdisciplinary subject matter of high quality.

Adler knows intellectual knowledge, skills, and understanding isn't enough, however. In "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice," he ends with a problem: "how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students."
C. S. Lewis has a lot to say about that particular problem and it's solution, but I'll save that for another post.

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