Which of Cary Christian School’s founders was a good friend of C.S. Lewis, published an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, wrote best-selling detective novels, and has been called “the most significant female British Christian intellectual of the twentieth century” and an author who “made a substantial impact on nearly as many fields as G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis”?
The answer: Dorothy Sayers.
Okay, okay…Dorothy Sayers wasn’t technically one of our school’s founders. After all, she died nearly four decades before the school opened and lived in England all her life, never setting foot in North Carolina or tasting the sweet elixir of our local Cheerwine. Even so, it is very possible that without her our school might not exist, because Dorothy Sayers helped inspire the classical and Christian schooling movement from which we have come.
How did she do it?
“The Lost Tools of Learning”
At any given moment, on any college or university campus anywhere in the world, one can find a symposium, lecture, or conference put on by various think tanks, departments, and societies. Typically, the lectures presented at these gatherings make as much impact in the world as this morning’s cereal. But on an evening in 1947, Sayers delivered a paper at Oxford University that has since generated a small revolution in education.
Her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” is at once a lament and a wondering aloud. She laments the degeneration of the modern educational enterprise while wondering if, perhaps, the methodology that produced the modern Western world might be recovered.
Sayers contended that modern education had abandoned the goal of training students in the skills and arts of thinking and learning. Instead, the goal had become procurement of data, facts, and subject-specific content. The unfortunate result of this shift is that students, in seeking to learn the subject alone, not only do not master the subject, but also fail to learn how to learn. They lose their ability to make connections between bits of information, to discern good reasoning from bad, and to express their thoughts in an articulate, cogent manner. In short, we divest them of the ability to think, allowing them to become victims of the shoddy, lazy, or even nefarious thinking of the age.
Addressing a problem that sounds rather familiar to our ears today, Sayers wrote:
For we 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. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of ‘subjects’; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spellbinder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
Sayers proposed an antidote to the malady. What if we returned to a time-tested approach to schooling that produced, among other achievements: Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Sir Isaac Newton, calculus, modern science, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, Luther’s 95 theses, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Notre Dame Cathedral? What if we once again trained students in the true tools of learning?
The beauty of this classical methodology is its employment of the Trivium, or “three-way path,” consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Sayers argued that the Trivium accurately corresponds both to the progressive stages of how children learn as well as the process by which any subject is thoroughly known and understood. A student who has received this kind of education may not know everything, but will be able to learn and think about anything:
For the sole true 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.
“The Lost Tools of Learning” in Action Today
What would it look for these “tools of learning” to be rediscovered and put back to use? Ironically, Sayers never dreamed it would actually happen. She considered it “in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.” She would therefore be quite surprised to know that today, tens of thousands of students in hundreds of private Christian schools (not to mention countless homeschoolers) are being taught grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the way she envisioned.
Cary Christian School has obtained permission from the publisher to offer Sayers’s “The Lost Tools of Learning” as a free e-book, formatted for printing and e-readers. If you haven’t already read this essay, we encourage you to take this opportunity to download it and learn more about the vision of schooling we share with classical and Christian schools around the world. If you’ve already read it, then why not share it with a friend?
Rediscovering the lost tools of learning is wonderful news, and we have, in part, Dorothy Sayers to thank for it.
Dell Cook is Cary Christian School’s Headmaster. Patrick Halbrook teaches European History (11th grade) and Rhetoric II (12th grade) at Cary Christian School.