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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Dorothy Sayers' "Lost Tools" in the 21st Century

Dorothy Sayers is fine proof that you don't need to have a degree or expertise in education in order to be able to critique the educational system and propose powerful solutions. Sayers begins her famous "Lost Tools of Learning" address by freely acknowledging that she is one "whose experience of teaching is extremely limited." In her day job, Sayers was a professional advertising copywriter, and she was a prolific literary writer and translator as well. Of course she was also one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, having earned first-class honors. 

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."]


  1. Just woke up, so not sure how coherent my thoughts will be, but I have to say I find that Lewis' "theory" of education outlined in "The Abolition of Man" fits in perfectly with Sayers (surprise surprise). Lewis focuses on the purpose of education being not so much the retention of facts and the memorization of information (as does Sayers) but as the creation and formation of a Person. Children must be taught how to feel and given a moral grounding. This fits in quite well with the Orthodox model of salvation, turning the education into a progressive journey towards Christ and making it a tool of Theosis. His was the first book that really drove home to me that without a Christian injection into our children's educations we're not really giving them the entire situation to work with, and we're also neglecting an important part of their holistic self, the soul.

    That holistic view of course is a theme of Sayers' essay as well. The incorporation of all parts of learning surrounding certain books or ideas rather than divided up by subject will provide, IMO, a better platform for real-life based learning. The public, Prussian model is not formulated to create critical thinkers, because the public school serves the government, and the government does not ultimately care whether or not her citizens can think but that they can pay taxes. It gets at the reason for the institution's (public education) existence.

    In college, when I studied Locke and Hobbes, I realized the purpose of a government, and formulate all my political opinions based upon what the purpose of the institution should be. It strikes many people as odd when you approach political debates from "does the government have the right to do that" not whether or not they should. Education works in much the same way to me now. By starting from a discussion about what education *should* do, it's much easier to make choices about your child's education. If you take Sayers' and Lewis' view, providing the mind with the tools to learn and an understanding of the necessity and benefit of cooperating with Christ, you can very easily begin to create a curriculum for your child and a plan to pursue it.

    My biggest concern is a lack of computer or technical knowledge in the general Classical Education movement. I think we're neglecting an important aspect of the future. Technology rules the day, and as lovers of the classics I think too often we let our adoration of the past obscure the fact that we do need to prepare our kids to function in today's world. I would love to find something about how (and what!) to teach our kids about technology that best fits into the Classical paradigm. I've seen some people do this with languages - teaching coding or something, but I'm not sure that's what I'm getting at. We don't necessarily need to know how to program computers, but we do need to understand something about them to operate with them. Unfortunately my own lack of knowledge in this area means I don't know what we should know. My wife seems to think the kids will pick it up from growing up in such a techy world, but I've always been of the opinion that conscious study is the surest way to prevent gaps. I still have time to figure out what we're going to do, but "computer science" is so prevalent today that it almost bears admittance as one of the liberal arts.

    1. Thank you for leaving a comment, Joseph. I agree that Lewis offers valuable insight into the nature and purpose of education which is complementary to Sayers' view.

      And I also relate to the problem you describe of "not knowing what I should know" about technology. Perhaps computer science and technology fit in somewhere in the quadrivium, but the idea of approaching coding as a language in the trivium is intriguing.