The Lost Tools of Learning


Yesterday in our post on what college is for, our newest subscriber, and paradoxically, an old, although very young, friend of Jessica and mine, Faith Williams, linked to an essay by Dorothy Sayers, presented at Oxford in 1947. It is far too good, and appropriate to remain buried in comments here.

Ms. Sayers takes as her subject The Trivium, the medieval equivalent of primary and secondary education. The source link provides this background on it.

Paul M. Bechtel writes that Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) briefly entered on a teaching career after graduating from Oxford. She published a long and popular series of detective novels, translated the “Divine Comedy,” wrote a series of radio plays, and a defense of Christian belief.

During World War II, she lived in Oxford, and was a member of the group that included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield. By nature and preference, she was a scholar and an expert on the Middle Ages.

In this essay, Miss Sayers suggests that we presently teach our children everything but how to learn. She proposes that we adopt a suitably modified version of the medieval scholastic curriculum for methodological reasons.

Get yourself a large mug of coffee or tea, this is a quite long essay, but there is not a spare word in it. You will learn much about what we have lost, and how we are eating our seed corn, and have been from the time of the Renaissance. Do enjoy it, but even more add it and its arguments to your arsenal in the continuing fight to improve education.

That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology. It is a kind of behavior to which the present climate of opinion is wholly favorable. Bishops air their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics; inorganic chemists, about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly technical ministries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how to draw. Up to a certain point, and provided the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, these activities are commendable. Too much specialization is not a good thing. 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 another, been taught. Even if we learnt nothing–perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing–our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value.

However, it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect. Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment. For they amount to this: that 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.

Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase–reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past), or whatever tag comes first to hand–I will ask you to consider one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and occasionally pop out to worry us.

via The Lost Tools of Learning

If you are, as I am, a proponent of the classical methods of instruction, and even more if, as I have, you have found that being able to learn, is an universal skill, not reserved for individual ‘subjects’, here then, is your armory, from whence issued, those phenomena of the late medieval and early modern age, the peripatetic man of knowledge.

Most of you know, I am an electrician, and a very technical one, if you’ve read here long, you also know that I love history, which sounds paradoxical, but it isn’t, I long ago learned that anything I learned about pretty much anything helps me in my work, and my professional work, helps me to understand almost everything else better. As I have often said, when I was young it was widely recognized that music and mathematics were closely related, and you may not know but a proper design of anything is defined in engineering as elegant. That goes to the heart of this discussion, in my opinion.

Arm yourself, for the lists, for there are many in our world, who stand to lose from a properly educated citizenry, and only that citizenry who will gain.

Thank you, again, Faith.


About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

9 Responses to The Lost Tools of Learning

  1. Faith Williams says:

    This is great, NEO! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Thanks, Faith. It’s an outstanding essay, that I never saw before. 🙂


      • Faith Williams says:

        I know! I was asked to read it during my interview process for the classical school I am teaching at this fall. I had heard of it but had never read it. Sayers’s is brilliant; perhaps she was simply overshadowed by her also brilliant peers and friends in the Inklings?

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Perhaps so, it certainly was a brilliant group. You found a dream job, sounds like!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Faith Williams says:

          I hope so! I am nervous but excited to be teaching for this school. I will be a first time teacher, but they have already provided a lot of support. They told me that my passion and love for the subject made me stand out. I’ll be teaching history 😀

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Yay! For another good history teacher. Love of subject is, I think, the prime qualification. I still remember mine in junior high with a deal of fondness. A tip, if it’s possible, don’t discourage historical novels and such. My love started there, primarily with Thomas B. Costain (on many areas), and the Hornblower saga. I know I’m not the only one. Make it fun as well as educational, I tried to read my stepdaughter 8th grade history textbook (quite a few year ago now), I couldn’t make through the chapter, it was not only boring, but its agenda was often wrong, as well. Dry as dust in the Mojave, in fact. Good luck, I think you’ll be great! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • Faith Williams says:

          Thank you! And to assuage any fears, the school doesn’t use “traditional” textbooks. They utilize primary sources and reputable books/novels as reading materials! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Outstanding! I love it, and may its kind spread like a prairie fire! 🙂


  2. Btw, I think Ms. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford? She studied both modern languages and medieval literature, kinda front to the back! Her father a chaplain and Anglican rector, taught her Latin beginning at six years old! A great mind and soul!

    *I have a few of her books and works, old one’s from the 1940’s, which a I got in a London bookshop years ago. Her work on Dante is classic! I think the modern version of her book: A Matter Of Eternity, Selections From The Writings Of Dorothy Sayers, is still in print?

    Liked by 1 person

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