Saturday, August 20, 2016

Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers

"The Lost Tools of Learning" by Dorothy Sayers is pretty much the Bible for the Classical Education movement. I may have read it or parts of it before, but I went back and read it again to make sure I was familiar with the whole thing. It's not that long. Just an essay, really. But this small piece of writing, helped inspire thousands and then millions of people. Including myself.

She starts off by discussing her qualifications, or lack thereof. She states, "There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education. For if we are not all professional teachers, we have all, at some time or other, been taught. Even if we learned nothing — perhaps in particular if we learned nothing — our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value." Then she makes this shocking assertion, "...if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages." Pure educational heresy.

She laments the fact the even though we as a society are extremely literate, we seem prone to fall for whatever fallacy sounds good at the moment. She diagnoses the problem that we are good at teaching subjects, but bad at teaching how to think. She likens it to teaching a child to play a particular song on a piano, but no instruction in how to actually play any song on the piano.

She advises a return to the Trivium and the Quadrivium. She begins with the Trivium which teaches students how to learn any subject. The Quadrivium, then, deals with the actual subjects to be learned. Within the Trivium is Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order. This is the way of the Middle Ages. "Modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as apiece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature."

She recognizes in children three distinct stages: the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic. These stages can easily correspond to the three stages of the Trivium. The Grammar stage comes first and for this she recommends learning Latin. "I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labour and pains of leaning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents." The student in the Poll-parrot stage of development learns by heart easily and for whom reasoning is hard. Use this time to teach Latin as well as 100s of other facts they can recite by rote back to the teacher.

Once the student moves into the Pert stage (about 5th through 8th grade), the age which "is characterized by contradicting, answering-back, liking to 'catch people out' (especially one's elders) and the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them), it's time to move to the Dialectic stage of the Trivium. This is the time of debates, arguments, and well-reasoned opinions. The student is ready and willing to use reason. The contents of the syllabus at this stage may be anything you like. The 'subjects' supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon. The pupils should be encouraged to go and forage for their own information, and so guided towards the proper use of libraries and books of reference, and shown how to tell which sources are authoritative and which are not.

"It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded... Any child that already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever. It would be well... that each pupil should learn to do one, or two, subjects really well, while taking a few classes in subsidiary subjects so as to keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge. Indeed, at this stage, our difficulty will be to keep 'subjects' apart; for as Dialectic will have shown all branches of learning to be inter-related, so Rhetoric will tend to show that all knowledge is one." This stage can be used in high school, but Sayers says the reason we have students in the past going to university at 14 is because they have mastered the Trivium which fully prepared them for the subjects offered there. She recognizes that at the end of the Dialectic stage a student will appear "behind" his modernly educated peer, but by the time he masters Rhetoric he will fly past the peer.

She believes, "The truth is that for the last 300 year or so we have been living upon our educational capital." That is, the vestiges of the Trivium exist in education but each generation gets farther and farther away from it. Some of it is passed down in the culture, but we are largely running on fumes at this point. It was the excitement of the post-Renaissance world that led scholars to abandon the Trivium and jump into an exciting, expanded Quadrivium.

She concludes with this: "The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing [teachers] to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."

I have to admit that I am very partial to this way of educating our young people. I tried to do this myself with my own girls to a limited extent. After all, I had not been educated this way, so it is all foreign to me. (Literally... Latin?) I would love to see this methodology integrated into my classroom. I'm not sure how to go about that exactly. That is why I am immersing myself in Classical thought. I want to live and breathe this stuff until it comes naturally to me!

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