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Dorothy Sayers's The Lost Tools of Learning
Back to Basics

By Drew Trotter


The Trinity Forum has for many years published four booklets a year, which include collections of poems, classic short stories or essays that have stood the test of time. These serve as an excellent foundation for just the kinds of discussion that leaders, students and in fact anyone who is in a reading group ought to be having. We reviewed one once before in these brief notes, also an essay on education: Wendell Berry’s “The Loss of the University”.

The essay herein described is more about learning in general than would be indicated by its use in the classical Christian school movement in the US in recent years, where it has been very influential. Yes, the essay directly relates a suggestion for revamping elementary education in Britain, but it implicitly describes a great necessity for all learning at all ages because it focuses not on what one should learn but the more foundational question of how one should.

The two introductions (the first is actually called the “Preface”, the second a “Foreword”) to this edition are worth noting. The first by Greg Thornbury of The King’s College of New York City emphasizes two aspects of the essay. The first is that Sayers’s work has no less a goal than to preserve Western civilization. Sayers recognized even in 1947 the loss in western educational circles of the ability to think, to solve problems. The second is the obvious: Sayers’s prescription for the ills of our culture is, as Thornbury puts it, to “go back to what worked in the first place.”

The fuller foreword, by Dan Russ of Gordon College, provides a brief introduction to Sayers the person: how she became a famous novelist, struggled against the sexual constraints of early twentieth century Britain, loved the classics, the importance to her of the “passionate intellect.” The most important thing Russ focuses for the reader, though, is the program Sayers has in mind in the essay. Far more than a scheme to revamp school education in Britain, she lays out a model for teaching children how to think and doing so in a way that grafts onto their psychological maturation. Eschewing the system that divides all learning into “subjects” and then teaching these as if they were hermetically sealed off from one another, she argues for a re-enactment of the medieval Trivium, the basis for learning in an earlier age, and the foundation upon which the Quadrivium, or courses of study in which one might engage in later education, is built.

The Trivium is composed of the ancient categories of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, but none of these words means what the modern reader is likely to think they mean. Yes, Sayers first advocates the study of language and makes a case for her beloved Latin, as something for the child in the “Poll-Parrot” stage to learn. They are to observe, memorize, and categorize, even if they do not fully understand what they are learning. Sayers rightly argues that this sort of learning of lists of words and categories, of verses of poetry and stories both classical and biblical, comes easily for young children who do not yet question, as they will when their critical faculties are more developed.

But she rightly extends the concept of “Grammar” to the fundamental principles and content of any discipline so that there is a “grammar” of science or mathematics or history or whatever, and children need to be introduced to those grammars at an early age. As she puts it: “Observation and memory are the faculties most lively at this period” (p. 24), and they are to be applied in many ways, including group recitation aloud.

Similarly, I would argue that adults, when they come to a new subject—let’s say, for instance, adult converts to Christianity, who know nothing about the faith until they encounter the risen Christ—those adults need to spend some time memorizing critical verses, names and stories, if they wish to press on and master the Bible and their faith. It is remarkable how many people are now even raised in the faith and know so little about it, and much of that ignorance stems from completely ignoring the “Grammar” stage of good learning.

The next step in the Trivium is the study of Dialectic. Sayers maps this discipline onto an age level she terms the “Pert” level, an age when everything is questioned and when children are often annoying in their self-confidence. Here the most important faculty is that of discursive reason, and the teacher needs to remind the student regularly of the rules of logic and its many false shadows: ad hominem argument, etc. This is the time of writing and debate, of dramatic performance and ethical discussion. In fact discussion and argument rule the day at this stage, but these are overseen by teachers who point out fallacies and hone the skills of argumentation in their students.

At some point the child matures to the third level, that of Rhetoric or creation. Here, as Sayers says, “The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will” (p. 28). Critical here is that the student be allowed to specialize, to follow paths that may lead them into some depth in order to master a subject and make it part of their being. This is called the Poetic stage because it revives the imagination and helps the student see where the foundations of logic and reason can be built upon, yes, but in some sense left behind in building now the floors and walls and roof of the house.

These are just the bare bones of an essay that makes for extraordinary reading. And it begs to be discussed.

We strongly urge you to order the booklet reviewed here from The Trinity Forum, P.O. Box 9464, McLean, VA 22102; (800) 585-1070 or [email protected]. However, the article can also be found here online. The address was originally given in Oxford in 1947.



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