Thursday, January 15, 2015

Back to the Future: The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers

Mining the Tradition for "new" ways of learning
In a 23 page essay written in 1947, Dorothy Sayers argues for the relevance and use of the Trivium, the classical and medieval foundation of education based on Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, taught in the order just listed. Is Sayers simply an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy? (Or as she suggests she’ll be branded, a “reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudatory temporis acti (praiser of times past)” (The Lost Tools of Learning (Kindle Location 25) Fig. Kindle Edition. I think not. Her complaint is one that many can sympathize with: “although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” Id. 77-78. As Sayers points out, Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric are not “subjects” in the usual school sense, but the means of learning subjects. She summarizes the function of each in this educational scheme: 
The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language—how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.
Id. (92-97)

Most people know Sayers as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, a series of classics in the English detective genre. But besides this successful career, and working as a single woman in advertising, she also was a major translator and commentator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and a Christian apologist of the first order (The Mind of the Maker, for instance). Thus, when it comes to valuing this medieval tradition, she knows whereof she speaks. 

Following the tradition, she argues that at some age (pre-puberty), students should be introduced to Grammar by way of learning an inflected language. She suggests Latin (no surprise). She argues that younger (late elementary) children will benefit from the repetition and mechanics of learning a grammar. It’s not the higher order thinking of logic or rhetoric, but it’s a fundamental. I must note that in my own experience, I never liked or learned any grammar to speak of until I was forced to do so in taking Spanish beginning in high school. (This doesn’t mean that English teachers didn’t teach grammar. My failure reveals that I suffered the double-whammy of not-so-smart and stubborn.) In her scheme—or rather the tradition that she endorses—she seems to adhere to an intuitive Piaget-like sequence. She writes:
I recognize three states of development. These, in a rough-and- ready fashion, I will call the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic—the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to “catch out” (especially one’s elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Fourth Form.
Id. 158-164

 She concludes with that most challenging age bracket:
The Poetic age is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.
Id. 164-167

Thus, this first stage isn’t so unlike contemporary schooling in that students learn to read, write, speak, calculate, and observe (science). But Sayers identifies this crucial difference: “The difference be felt rather in the attitude of the teachers, who must look upon all these activities less as “subjects” in themselves than as a gathering-together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium.” Id. 206-208.

As to the next stage of learning, Sayers writes:
It is difficult to say at what age, precisely, we should pass from the first to the second part of the Trivium. Generally speaking, the answer is: so soon as the pupil shows himself disposed to pertness and interminable argument. For as, in the first part, the master faculties are Observation and Memory, so, in the second, the master faculty is the Discursive Reason. In the first, the exercise to which the rest of the material was, as it were, keyed, was the Latin grammar; in the second, the key- exercise will be Formal Logic.
Id. 221-224

The final stage, beginning around age 14, Sayers suggests, is Rhetoric, which ties knowledge together. This contrasts with Dialectic (logic), which parses knowledge into discreet bits in order to best test it. Here we must appreciate that Rhetoric means the study of persuasion, not fancy speech or (necessarily) deceptive speech. The tradition follows Aristotle and not Plato on the utility and importance of Rhetoric, something we should do as well. Sayers suggests that the poetic impulse, the desire to persuade (and I’d add, seduce) comes to the fore at this stage. Having received the mechanics of language through Grammar and the crap-detector (my term, not hers) of Dialectic, the student can put it all together in persuasive prose and poetry. 

So why follow this prescription? Sayers, remember, worked for an ad agency and then she published this essay just following the Second World War. She writes: 
[W]e let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.
          Id. 132-136

Is this not true today—and more so? 

What is the end of education? Let Sayers have the last word:
[T]he sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men [sic] how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.
Id. 328-329
So is this a Quixotic quest? Probably, but Sayers makes a strong argument. People argue about school curriculums because they shape the future. The curriculum must change as the culture changes, but perhaps some aspects shouldn’t be altered nearly so much. Sayers adds a lot of thought to the issue. In a future essay, I’ll address an even more comprehensive (but I think largely consistent) curriculum offered by William Irwin Thompson that is used in at least one K-12 school today. The search continues.