“The Lost Tools of Learning”

“The Lost Tools of Learning”

In my homeschooling researches I’ve encountered several references to this great classic essay by Dorothy Sayers, famed mystery writer, creator of Lord Peter Whimsey, one of my favorite fictional heros. (The Well-Trained Mind and Designing You Own Classical Curriculum both refer to it and use its principles as a basic outline for their course of study.)

Sayers’ basic thesis:

… 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.

Lest you think she is a mere reactionary, Sayers continues with a detailed critique of modern education. 

Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that 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.

Mind you she presented these ideas at Oxford in 1947. One could argue that things have got much worse since then.

In any case, Sayers advocates a return to the classical method of the trivium—grammar, logic and rhetoric—as an antidote to what is wrong with modern education.

modern education concentrates on “teaching subjects,” leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along’ mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.

This essay more than anything I’ve read, most succinctly outlines the basic principles of my educational philosophy and my decision to home school. While it is true that a desire to inculcate Catholic values is a major factor in that decision—both public schools and a majority of Catholic schools being non-conducive if not outright hostile to that aim—still, even if I were to find a school that was solid in its Catholicicism, I would desire that my children’s education be grounded in these solid principles, that above all they learn how to learn.

But read Miss Sayer’s essay, in any case. It is good stuff to chew on. 


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