The Lost Tools of Learning
By Dorothy L. Sayers
From the Introduction, by Cary Christian School Headmaster Dell Cook:
On an evening in 1947, the British crime novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright Dorothy Sayers delivered a speech at Oxford University that has since generated a small revolution.
Sayers’ essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, is at once a lament and a wondering aloud. She laments the low and continuing degeneration of the modern educational enterprise while wondering to her listeners if, perhaps, the educational methodology that produced the modern western world might be recovered.
In her speech, Sayers’ main thesis was that modern education had wandered astray from a 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 in emphasis is that students, in seeking only to learn the subject, not only do not learn the subject, they fail to learn how to learn anything. Additionally, they become less apt and able to make connections of information, how to discern good reasoning from bad, and how to articulately express their thoughts in a cogent way. In short, we divest them of the ability to think and consequently, they become victims of the shoddy, lazy, or worse, nefarious thinking of the age…
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Although the three parts of the trivium are applied to all learning for all students, regardless of age, they are most often understood in application to the developmental age of the students. The first stage, grammar, is not the “subject” of grammar; rather, it is the study of the basic facts of different subjects. This stage applies to children of approximately six to ten years old, the stage when children are the most receptive to information and will readily memorize. Focus is placed on reading, writing, and spelling; an elementary study of Latin; basic math skills; and developing observation, listening, and memorization skills. Since SCA is a school for Christians, the students are given a general overview of history through a biblical worldview as well as a study of the major stories of the Bible. Science is taught through observation of the world so that the students can appreciate the vastness of God’s creation around them. In this way, science fulfills the students' curiosity and deepens their awesome wonder of the world. The aim at this stage is to give the students the tools to master the elements of language and to develop a general framework of knowledge. Along the way the students are taught and expected to make application of logic and rhetoric so that as each student matures, mastery of these elements will emerge.
The maturing students naturally begin to demonstrate independent or abstract thought initiating the next stage of development for children ages eleven through thirteen or fourteen. Commonly called the logic stage, students of this age often express sincere questions and a desire to search for the reasons behind long-held principles and truths. Building upon the foundational skills, the wise teacher will recognize this tendency to question and to debate, and utilize it as a tool to mold and to shape the students' mind. This will be done by teaching logical discussion, engaging in debates, and demonstrating how to draw correct conclusions and support them with facts. The pedagogy equips students with language and thinking skills, making them capable of detecting fallacies in an argument. This is the stage in which the students begin to actually pick up and to use the tools mastered in the earlier years of learning. They begin to develop the skills to define their terms, to make accurate statements, to construct an argument, and, at times, much to the chagrin of parents, to see fallacies in the arguments of others. This molding of thought and communication skills is not to promote in students a superior, critical, or negative attitude, but to cultivate discerning and thoughtful students, students who know when to follow and when to lead.
The maturing students begin to master the skills of language and logic. The rhetoric stage emerges in students at approximately age fourteen and above. As the students advance in the trivium, they can use language, both written and spoken, eloquently and persuasively, to express what they think; a natural yearning for young adults. With God’s grace and “good guidance this stage 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 one thing in preference to all others.” In other words, the maturing students have some leading as to where their real interest lies in this world. And hopefully, as Christians, they will want to use this knowledge to further advance the Kingdom of God, their primary goal being to persuade others to follow Christ. For the Christian, a life of holiness and sacrifice will always speak louder than words. However, when such a life has been properly equipped to use the great tools of communication - persuasive speech and writing - God’s glory is known all the more.