With a degree in medieval literature from a classically-modeled school, Sayers is quite qualified to inform her audience regarding the structure of the classical/medieval model of education.
When I first read Dorothy Sayers's now-famous address, I was so moved by her wit, insight, and moxie that I became an instant fan. As readers, we are disarmed by her humor, impressed by her erudition, and convinced by her incisive criticism of a broken educational system.
I own and have read most of Sayers books. I love her. And so do lots of other folks, in particular those in the classical education movement who have rallied around her Lost Tools essay. Douglas Wilson wrote a whole book around it. Institutions have been erected on its ideas, and schools and groups have taken Sayers' name.
And thank God for the revival in classical liberal arts education that Sayers' essay helped bring about. Long live the trivium! Long live quadrivium!
We are indebted to Sayers for reminding us that the medieval model of education has something to teach us—not, as she says, that we should emulate it exactly, but that we should correct the modern educational error of straying away from the liberal arts. The seven liberal arts equip students with the tools of learning necessary for any field of study and for discernment in life in general.
Our society needs this reminder no less—and probably more—than at the time of Sayers's original presentation of "The Lost Tools of Learning" in 1947. Students do not need to acquire more and more technical facts and information; they need the learned habit of thinking critically and well. They need to know how to make distinctions, to define terms, to follow and evaluate an argument. They need the fine-tuned ability to discern good from bad, beauty from ugliness, truth from falsehood. And the seven liberal arts offer a framework for developing these human potentials. So Sayers reminds us.
But what would Sayers say to us today? In this age of information, we have access—at the click of a button or swipe of a finger—to a wealth of research, "best practices," and volumes of authors past and present, all of which can inform our educational choices.
If Sayers spoke to us today, I think she would urge us to see her "Lost Tools of Learning" address as an attempt to start a conversation and not necessarily as a definitive blue print for K-12 education.
Sayers is not the only eloquent thinker to highlight the benefits and features of a classical liberal arts education. And the habit of critical discernment which she recommends, demands that we, the readers, pause to evaluate the soundness and veracity of her own ideas. Entering into a critical dialog with the text of her address would be a sign that we have truly understood the principles she advances.
I am sure Sayers would be honored to see us filling out and finessing her "necessarily very sketchy suggestions" with insights from other thinkers. The banner-carrying classicists of the 1940's come to mind—Mortimer Adler, C.S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain. Charlotte Mason is another strong advocate of a robust liberal arts education. Each of these thinkers and practitioners of the liberal arts offer unique insights into the ideal nature and structure of a classical liberal arts education.
How can we best synthesize the valuable insights from Sayer's "Lost Tools of Learning" essay with the complimentary insights from other liberal-arts-minded powerhouses of theory and practice?
[This post is the first in a series. The next is "Dorothy Sayers and Mortimer Adler in Conversation."]