Against Dorothy Sayers (2009)

This article was originally published in 2009.  -WM

When we hear programs and schools outside of the CLAA using the phrase “classical education”, they usually mean that they’re implementing ideas found in Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning”.  The ideas of Sayers have nothing to do with classical education as a careful reading of her essay proves.  Dorothy Sayers may have some ideas that differ from modern schools, but they differ as much from classical ideas.  Call it what you wish, Dorothy Sayers is not an advocate of classical education.

Rather than take the lazy route and merely pull quotes and beat up a straw man, we provide nearly* the entire text of Sayers’ essay with detailed commentary on each point.  Ms. Sayers’ words are in black with our comments in red

  • Part I.  Sayers’ Criticism of Modern Education
    Part II.  Sayers’ Proposed Solution
  • * A few paragraphs were omitted because they had no effect on the actual message of the essay and made the reading tiresome.  The places where the omissions were made are marked.

The Lost Tools of Learning

by Dorothy Sayers (1947)

Part I.  Sayer’s Criticism of Modern 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 that the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, theses 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 potential value.

Sayers claims not to be an expert in education and that she has the same authority anyone else has, since she, like them has been taught.  The attitude at the outset is one of independence and irreverence, as she criticizes her society’s ways and then does the same:  airing her own opinions about a topic she claims to be no expert in: education.

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 board 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.

Sayers assumes her ideas are not to be implemented. This is a serious admission because one would be far more cautious in suggesting a plan that might be implemented.  Obviously, she could have not considered that these ideas just might be accepted as an actual plan for education.   She was wrong as the modern home school scene proves.

What’s actually wrong here, however, is that Sayers refers to the educational system that was in place “four of five hundred years” before her, which would have the classical Catholic educational system–not anything she describes in this essay.

Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti, 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.

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to the university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day?  To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society.  The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is that there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages.  This is partially true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects but does that always mean that they actually know more?

These are valuable observations that few of us would not appreciate.  There is no question that (a) childishness is prolonged in modern schools and (b) despite all the activity and resources, children seem to leave school no more intelligent than in times past.

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher that it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined?  Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area?  Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Another well received point:  Modern society (especially children) cannot distinguish fact from fiction in today’s advertising-driven media.  (It’s worth noting that Sayers worked in advertising for some time, so she speaks from experience and probably not without some guilt.) 

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?  Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees?  And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them?  Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?

There is no question that adults today cannot engage in debate comfortably or productively. 

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things?  Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?

“Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things?”  This is an eerie statement to read when we consider that this essay has been embraced as a curriculum source document upon which families are pinning their children’s education.  We are persuaded that Sayers’ essay is “very conspicuously none of these things”.

Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a subject remains a subject, divided by watertight bulkheads from all other subjects, so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between, let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the piece of salmon or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economic, or chemistry and art?

What is strange is that this is true of the schools and programs claiming to follow Sayers’ model.  It seems that they all know no way of integrating subjects in a natural way.  We still find “classical” programs offering 7+ “subjects”, as hers does below.

[Several paragraphs offering examples omitted for brevity.]

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.  It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play the Harmonious Blacksmith upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized the Harmonious Blacksmith, he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle the Last Rose of Summer:. Why do I say, as though? In certain of the arts and crafts we sometimes do precisely this requiring a child to express himself in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job.  But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an old piece of material, in order to give himself the feel of the tool.

Let us now look at the mediaeval scheme of education the syllabus of the Schools.  It does not matter, for the moment, whether it was devised for small children or for older students, or how long people were supposed to take over it.  What matters is the light it throws upon what the men of the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of the educative process.

The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium.  The second part the Quadrivium consisted of subjects and need not for the moment concern us.  The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceeded the Quadrivium was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Now the first thing that we notice is that two at any rate of these subjects are not what we should call subjects at all they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a subject in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language; at that period it meant learning Latin.  But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed.    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 how to detect fallacies in argument.  Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation.  Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.

At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards, to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty.  By this time he would have learned or woe betide him not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled.  There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.

Everything is pretty good through here, but we should never be impressed by criticism.  It is always easier to identify symptoms of disease than to diagnose them truly and propose a remedy.  Sayers’ identification of the symptoms is fine, but her diagnosis and proposed cure are absurd. 

It is of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval tradition still linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus of today.  Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreign language perhaps I should say, is again required; for during my own lifetime we passed through a phrase when the teaching of declensions and conjugations was considered rather reprehensible, and it was considered better to pick these things up as we went along.  School debating societies flourish; essays are written; the necessity for self-expression is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all subjects stand in a subordinate relation.  Grammar belongs especially to the subject of foreign languages, and essay-writing to the subject called English, while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of the curriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of school hours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main business of learning.  Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: 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.

We will see below that Sayers’ proposed solution does nothing to remedy this problem. I would even argue that it makes it worse, for she takes nothing out of the modern curriculum, but proposes that we add more.  Sayers claims that the difference is not so much content as it is emphasis.  The CLAA argues that it is both the content and the emphasis that need correction.  The burden of content is what leads to the deemphasizing of what is most important, just as an abundance of material goods necessarily distracts one’s devotion to spiritual duties.  Monks and nuns take vows of poverty for a reason.

Furthermore, before we get to her proposal, I would argue that most of the schools that claim to be following Sayers’ ideas are still guilty of the faults she criticized.  Is not “Grammar” taught primarily in foreign language classes (whether Latin or modern)?  Is “Writing” not still taught as a subject belonging to “English” class?  Is not Dialectic still absent from the curriculum?  Though we do not support her ideas, it seems she would be happier with the CLAA than the programs that claim her as their guide.  The CLAA teaches an integrated Grammar, has no “English Writing” class and is the only program that teaches Dialectic.

Subjects of some kind there must be, of course.  One cannot learn the theory of grammar without learning an actual language, or learn to argue and orate without speaking about something in particular.  The debating subjects of the Middle Ages were drawn largely from theology, or from the ethics and history of antiquity. Often, indeed, they became stereotyped, especially towards the end of the period, and the far-fetched and wire-drawn absurdities of Scholastic argument fretted Milton and provide food for merriment even to this day. Whether they were in themselves any more hackneyed and trivial than the usual subjects set nowadays for essay-writing I should not like to say: we may ourselves grow a little weary of A Day in My Holidays and all the rest of it. But most of the merriment is misplaced, because the aim and object of the debating thesis has by now been lost sight of.

[Paragraph omitted for brevity.]   

Scorn in plenty has been poured out upon the mediaeval passion for hair-splitting: but when we look at the shame-less abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored by his education as to be able to cry: Distinguo.  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 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 lip service 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 recognizes the important problem of rushing kids into skills whose purpose they cannot yet understand.  She says,

“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.” 

I would argue that this is now true of home-school mothers who follow her advice just as it was true of school teachers in the 1940’s.  Is it nobler that mothers suffer this than teachers?  Are the 80+ page home school curriculum catalogs not evidence that a “piecemeal job” is still being done despite it’s now being called “classical”?  Are the so-called “classical” curriculum providers solving this problem or simply re-packaging it? 

What, then, are we to do?  We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error?  The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot” does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if the Middle Ages is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it with modifications as we have already “gone back”, with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the “modernized” versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.

Part II.  Sayer’s Proposed Solution

Let us amuse ourselves by imagining that such progressive retrogression is possible. Let us make a clean sweep of all educational authorities, and furnish ourselves with a nice little school of boys and girls whom we may experimentally equip for the intellectual conflict along lines chosen by ourselves.  We will endow them with exceptionally docile parents; we will staff our school with teachers who are themselves perfectly familiar with the aims and methods of the Trivium; we will have our buildings and staff large enough to allow our classes to be small enough for adequate handling; and we will postulate a Board of Examiners willing and qualified to test the products we turn out. Thus prepared, we will attempt to sketch out a syllabus a modern Trivium  with modifications; and we will see where we get to.

Note the: “Trivium with modifications” distinction.  This will be important below.

But first: what age shall the children be? Well, if one is to educate them on novel lines, it will be better that they should have nothing to unlearn; besides, one cannot begin a good thing too early, and the Trivium is by its nature not learning, but a preparation for learning. We will, therefore,  catch em’ young, re-quiring of our pupils only that they shall be able to read, write, and cipher.

My views about child-psychology are, I admit, neither orthodox nor enlightened.  Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognize three states of development.

Here is where things fall apart for Ms. Sayers.  The philosophy of the Trivium (ancient) is suddenly married and subordinated to Sayers’ own opinions on child psychology (modern).  Here we find the “Trivium with modifications” distinction she made above.  Note:  From this point on, Dorothy Sayers is NOT talking about the true medieval Trivium.  She is proposing a modernized program of study that borrows the “progression” idea from the Trivium, but is re-oriented around “stages of learning” and not specific knowledge and skills.  Whereas the Trivium consisted of three specific arts, she is now referring to three different stages that resemble the Trivium by way of analogy.  This is NOT classical education, but something she is inventing on the spot.  Moreover, they are not based on universal principles or broad observations, but on her own experiences as a child. 

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 people out  (especially one’s elders), and by the propounding of connundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high.  It usually sets in about the Fourth Form. 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 now and some one thing in preference to all others.  Now it seems to me that the layout of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-Parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age. 

Here we have the invention of these three stages of learning:  Poll-Parrot, Pert and Poetic–terms coined right here by Sayers.  She is not claiming to be following the Trivium here–that was merely referred to for illustration.  This three stage theory is her own invention.

Let us begin, then, with Grammar.  This, in practice, means, the grammar of some language in particular, and it must be an inflected language.  The grammatical structure of an inflected language is far too analytical to be tackled by any one without previous practice in Dialectic.  Moreover, the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected.  I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar.  I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent.  It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all of the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.

This underlined sentence makes no sense at all.  Sayers says that the Grammatical study of an inflected languages (e.g., Latin) is impossible until after Dialectic, then she says the best foundation in learning is in Latin Grammar.  If Dialectic belongs to the “Pert” age and Grammar to the “Poll Parrot”, how does Grammar depend on Dialectic? 

Those whose pedantic preference for a living language persuades them to deprive their pupils of all these advantages might substitute Russian, whose grammar is still more primitive.  Russian is, of course, helpful with the other Slav dialects.  There is something also to be said for Classical Greek. But my own choice is Latin.  Having thus pleased the Classicists among you, I will proceed to horrify them by adding that I do not think it either wise or necessary to cramp the ordinary pupil upon the Procrustean bed of the Augustan Age, with its highly elaborate and artificial verse forms and oratory. Post-classical and mediaeval Latin, which was a living language down to the end of the Renaissance, is easier and in some ways livelier; and a study of it helps to dispel the widespread notion that learning and literature came to a full stop when Christ was born and only woke up again at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Here Sayers recommends medieval Latin rather than classical, but notice that she anticipates the disapproval of classicists in her audience.  Rightly so!  In this proposal she is casting away the entire history of classical education, which held Caesar, Cicero, Vergil and Horace to be the masters of the Latin language.  She forgets that the post-classical and medieval Latin was learned through a course of study that focused on the classical masters.  Once again, she is blazing a new trail–one that we have seen the harmful consequences of in many other areas.

She also is casting away the focus of classical education, which is the cultivation of the arts of learning.  The classical masters were studied to nurture the students’ ability to speak and write well.  Sayers is suggesting that Grammar be studied for the sake of reading–which is yet another inconsistency.  Reading was not the goal of classical language studies–speaking and writing was.  Here we see the seeds of the modern obsession with literature as an end in itself.  Our aim should not be to simply read the works of other authors but to become the authors of our generation.  The authors did not learn in the way Sayers proposes and the classicists in the audience would have been just in their disapproval of her unprecedented recommendations. Remember, she is making these suggestions on her own authority, despite not having much experience in education.  

Latin should be begun as early as possible at a time when inflected speech seems no more astonishing than any other phenomenom in an astonishing world; and when the chanting of Amo, Amas, Amat is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of eeny, meeny, miney, mo.

Here Sayers suggests blind memorization of Grammar forms, which was never practiced by classical schools.  Students began with the rules of Grammar and learned the forms within the context of the rules.  After praising the Tudor schools above, why would she abandon their methods?  After all, the students could be memorizing Grammar rules (which they can understand as the CLAA proves daily), rather than forms.  Children need to learn Grammar–the art of speaking and writing well–not Latin declensions.

During this age we must, of course, exercise the mind on other things besides Latin grammar. Observation and memory are the faculties most lively at this period; and if we are to learn a contemporary foreign language we should begin now, before the facial and mental muscles become rebellious to strange intonations. Spoken French or German can be practiced alongside the grammatical discipline of the Latin.

In English, meanwhile, verse and prose can be learned by heart, and the pupil’s memory should be stored with stories of every kind classical myth.  European legend, and so Fourth, I do not think that the classical stories and masterpieces of ancient literature should be made the vile bodies on which to practice the technics of Grammar that was a fault of mediaeval education which we need not perpetuate. The stories can be enjoyed and remembered in English, and related to their origin at a subsequent stage. Recitation aloud should be practiced, individually or in chorus; for we must not forget that we are laying the groundwork for Disputation and Rhetoric.

Is anyone paying attention?  Earlier Sayers said that classical languages interpret modern languages (which implies progression), yet now she proposes studying them at the same time.  Moreover, here she is dividing Spoken language class from Grammatical language class and creating the multiplication of subjects she condemned earlier.   Let’s attend to some logistics here.  We now have an 8-12 year old student learning: (1) Latin Grammar, (2) Latin Vocabulary, (3) Spoken French/German along with (4) English Prose and Poetry.  She has created now four different language classes all studied simultaneously after attacking the compartmentalizing of subjects before.

Why?  Because she has assumed that there exists a “Poll-Parrot Stage”  which recommends a certain kind of learning.  If memory is indeed strongest here, then we must cram everything in now or risk never being able to memorize it later when we move into the next stage and our memorizing powers wane.  This is all false and contrary in every way to classical education.  The ability for children to memorize is due to the fact that they enjoy the leisure and routine to do so.  An adult monk who lives without mental clutter and enjoys a child-like routine can memorize far more than a child, which proves the theory to be false.  That our adult lives are too busy and poorly prioritized does not justify the proposal of a new theory of memory capacity in childhood.  It is merely accidental, for in medieval monasteries and among monks today, memorization was a central part of education throughout life.

The grammar of History should consist, I think, of dates, events, anecdotes, and personalities.  A set of dates to which one can peg all later historical knowledge is of enormous help later on in establishing the perspective of history.  It does not greatly matter which dates; those of the Kings of England will do very nicely, provided that they are accompanied by pictures of costumes, architecture, and other everyday things so that the mere mention of a date calls up a strong visual presentment of the whole period.

Here’s where the real goofiness begins:  The Grammar of History?!  Now, we’ve really gone over the edge if we accept this nonsense.  Will we also study the Arithmetic of Geometry or the Rhetoric of Logic?  Here, Sayers’ modern psychology has completely confused the entire curriculum into a mass of facts and figures.  She goes ahead and says, “It does not matter which dates.”  What in the world can this produce?  I would argue that Sayers takes this position simply because she is not interested in thinking through what information is necessary and in what order.    What master chef, about to teach a student to cook, would say that the specific ingredients gathered don’t matter since they will focus on cooking and not the food itself?  Anytime she gets close to the ground and we can begin to see how impracticable her ideas are she flies again into the clouds where anything goes. 

All of this flows from her false premise that the child is in a “stage” and must therefore gather up as many bits and pieces of information before the “memory” stage ends. 

Geography will similarly be presented in its factual aspect, with maps, natural features, and visual presentment of customs, costumes, flora, fauna, and so on; and I believe myself that the discredited and old-fashioned memorizing of a few capital cities, rivers, mountain ranges, etc., does no harm.  Stamp-collecting may be encouraged.

Again, the notion is so absurd it is painful to read:  The Grammar of Geography?  To our study of (1) Latin Grammar  (2) Latin Vocabulary, (3) Spoken French/German, (4) English Poetry and Prose we have added (5) random History memorization, and (6) random Geography memorization.   This is classical education?  Who would be so naive to suggest that her goal is to restore classical education? 

Science, in the Poll-Parrot period, arranges itself naturally and easily round collections the identifying and naming of specimens and, in general, the kind of thing that used to be called “natural history, or, still more charmingly, “natural philosophy. To know the names and properties of things is, at this age, a satisfaction in itself; to recognize a devil’s coach-horse at sight, and assure one’s foolish elders that, in spite of its appearance, it does not sting; to be able to pick out Cassiopeia and the Pleiades, and perhaps even to know who Cassiopeia and Peliades were; to be aware that a whale is not a fish, and a bat not a bird all these things give a pleasant sensation of superiority; while to know a ring-snake from an adder or a poisonous from an edible toadstool is a kind of knowledge that has also a practical value.

Now, Sayers rushes into Science hoping to treasure yet more trivia before the “Poll-Parrot Stage” ends.  Is the goal of learning to outdo one’s elders in nature trivia?  Is this the remedy to the lack of skill among modern students–that they become “smart” in things trivial? 

Natural Philosophy is not elementary information-gathering…it is Philosophy and is studied at the highest level of the classical curriculum, after Analytics (Logic) has been studied so that students can rightly name and classify things according to their true definitions.  Who will check to see that the student’s memory work is accurate?  Perhaps that doesn’t matter since the goal is just to store up “stuff” to sort out later. This is a plan?

What is worse is that Sayers clearly doesn’t understand the philosophical problems of modern education.  Encyclopedic learning entered the schools as a result of the abandonment of the classical method.  The “new method” (observation & experimentation) promoted the gathering of as much sensual information as possible and transformed the curriculum from an efficient and simple study of seven arts into a mass of subjects and information.  Furthermore, it was the anti-Catholic spirit visible is Francis Bacon’s writing that taught men that “Knowledge is Power” and encouraged men to trust no authority but turn every stone over for themselves.  That is a quite a different spirit from that of St. Ignatius, who swore to believe the teaching of the Church even if it contradicted what he could see with his own eyes.  Sayers is herself caught up in the flood rather than swimming against it.

The grammar of Mathematics begins, of course, with the multiplication table, which, of not learnt now, will never be learnt with pleasure; and with the recognition of the geometrical shapes and the grouping of numbers. These exercises lead naturally to the doing of simple sums in arithmetic.  More complicated mathematical processes may, and perhaps should be postponed, for reasons which will presently appear.

The Grammar of Mathematics?  Does she not know that the word Grammar refers to letters (grammata in Greek)?  How has she managed to turn the word Grammar into a synonym for “Level I” and apply it across the curriculum?  Does anyone reading this believe that she is seeking to restore classical education at this point?

So far (except, of course, for the Latin), our curriculum contains nothing that departs very far from common practice.

Did you read that?  Sayers has produced a modern curriculum PLUS Latin. 

The difference will 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. What that material is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can usefully be committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not.

After all of her complaining she admits that what she has proposed is really not different at all.  She is forced to clarify that the difference is in the attitude of the teachers.  This is sounding more and more like the Emperor’s New Clothes.  This is what happens when someone finds that they can criticize but not remove faults.  In this paragraph we find the plan stated explicitly:  we are memorizing random information that we’ll make sense of later.  The ultimate question is:  Why are we not using the memory stage (if it exists) to memorize the rules of systematic Grammar and Arithmetic rather than for collecting unimportant trivia?  The children should be memorizing the rules that will guide their studies for the rest of their lives as they did in the classical curriculum.  Sayers refuses to give any guidelines or objectives for this trivia shopping spree, she pushes all practical questions off until later…but you’ll see she doesn’t answer them there. 

The modern tendency is to try and force rational explanations on a child’s mind at too early an age. Intelligent questions, spontaneously asked, should, of course, receive an immediate and rational answer; but it is a great mistake to suppose that a child cannot readily enjoy and remember things that are beyond his power to analyze – particularly if those things have a strong imaginative appeal (as, for example, “Kubla Khan”), an attractive jingle (like some of the memory rhymes for Latin genders), or an abundance of rich, resounding polysyllables (like the Quicumque vult).

What is strange is that Sayers seems to imagine that she is defending the “old methods” when she is, in fact, opposed to them at every turn.  She is the one recommending that children memorize random information because they cannot study inflected languages until after Dialectic.  The classical schools directly oppose this whole idea of hers, yet she pretends to speak with their applause. 

This reminds me of the grammar of Theology. I shall add it to the curriculum, because theology is the mistress-science, without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis. Those who disagree about this will remain content to leave their pupils’ education still full of loose ends. This will matter rather less than it might, since by the time the tools of learning have been forged the student will be able to tackle theology for himself, and will probably insist upon doing so and making sense of it. Still, it is as well to have this matter also handy and ready for the reason to work upon. AT the grammatical age, therefore, we should become acquainted with the story of God and Man in outline, i.e. the Old and New Testaments presented as parts of a single narrative of Creation, Rebellion, and Redemption, and also with the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. At this stage, it does not matter nearly so much that these things should be fully understood as that they should be known and remembered.

Our Dorothy Sayers curriculum now includes: (1) Latin Grammar, (2) Latin Vocabulary, (3) Spoken French/German, (4) English prose & Poetry, (5) Random History, (6) Random Geography, (7) Scientific Trivia, (8) Mathematics and (9) Bible Stories, Prayers, the Creed, the Commandments.  Nine subjects, none of which are integrated.  What exactly makes this different from the flawed modern curriculum?

In yet another mind-boggling statement, she refers to Theology as the mistress-science, which means the “master” of sciences.  This is why it was studied at the end or top of the classical curriculum. It is this modern idea that everything must be included now that undermines the order and progression of the classical liberal arts curriculum, and Sayers can do nothing more to undermine every part of it. 

How, practically, would such a study program be arranged and managed?  How would a teacher plan the instruction of random information–just to work on later in the “Pert stage”?  How would mastery be assessed?  What would the value of that assessment be?  If the exact content does not matter, how can the exact knowledge of it matter?  It is clear that Sayers has little experience in education because these lecture thoughts are meaningless and impracticable.  Without any real-world accountability, she can propose anything–visits to other planets, class trips to the middle of the earth–she dodges any practical questions by promising they’ll be resolved later…by someone else.  

Are you seeing that this really isn’t a plan for education?

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. It is here that our curriculum shows its first sharp divergence from modern standards. The disrepute into which Formal Logic has fallen is entirely unjustified; and its neglect is the root cause of nearly all those disquieting symptoms which we have noted in the modern intellectual constitution. Logic has been discredited, partly because we  have come to suppose that we are conditioned almost entirely by the intuitive and the unconscious. There is no time to argue whether this is true; I will simply observe that to neglect the proper training of the reason is the best possible way to make it true. Another cause for the disfavor into which Logic has fallen is the belief that it is entirely based upon universal assumptions that are either unprovable or tautological. This is not true. Not all universal propositions are of this kind. But even if they were, it would make no difference, since every syllogism whose major premise is in the form “All A is B” can be recast in hypothetical form. Logic is the art of arguing correctly; “If A, then B”; the method is not invalidated by the hypothetical mature of A. Indeed, the practical utility of Formal Logic today lies not so much in the establishment of positive conclusions as in the prompt detection and exposure of invalid inference.

Would we not need to establish tests to discern the stage in which a student was working?  After all, if a students “Poll-Parrot Stage” lasted longer than another’s, would we want to do more memorizing?  Sayers suggests that when a student becomes argumentative he is no longer in the “Poll-Parrot Stage” but has advanced to the “Pert” stage. 

Here, Sayers recommends the study of “Formal Logic”.  By this does she simply mean learning the basic form of the syllogism?  Does she understand that there is one kind of reasoning used in Rhetoric and another in Philosophy? How exactly would this study of “Formal Logic” be pursued?  This is idle talk.

Let us now quickly review our material and see how it is to be related to Dialectic. On the Language side, we shall now have our vocabulary and morphology at our fingertips; henceforward we can concentrate on syntax and analysis (i.e., the logical construction of speech) and the history of language (i.e., how we came to arrange our speech as we do in order to convey our thoughts).

Dialectic is the study of dialectical reasoning (i.e., Aristotle’s Topics).  Is this what she refers to, or are Dialectic and Logic now synonymous?  Sayers prefers to think of Dialectic as another Stage, not a specific book as the classicists knew it to be. Again, this is all her own invention.  In classical schools Syntax was a part of Grammar, not Dialectic!

Our Reading will proceed from narrative and lyric to essays, arguments, and criticism, and the pupil will learn to try his hand at writing this kind of thing. Many lessons – on whatever subject – will take the form of debates; and the place of individual or choral recitation will be taken by dramatic performances, with special attention to plays in which an argument is stated in dramatic form.

Mathematics – algebra, geometry, and the more advanced kinds of arithmetic – will now enter into the syllabus and take its place as what it really is; not a separate “subject”, but a sub-department of Logic. It is neither more or less than the rule of the syllogism in its particular application to number and measurement, and should be taught as such, instead of being, for some, a dark mystery, and, for others, a special revelation, neither illuminating nor illuminated by any other part of knowledge.

History, aided by a simple system of ethics derived from the grammar of theology, will provide much suitable material for discussion. Was the behavior of this statesman justified? What was the effect of such an enactment? What are the arguments for and against this or that form of government? We shall thus get an introduction to constitutional history – a subject meaningless to the young child, but of absorbing interest to those who are prepared to argue and debate. Theology itself will furnish material for argument about conduct and morals; and should have its scope extended by a simplified course of dogmatic theology (i.e., the rational structure of Christian thought), clarifying the relations between the dogma and the ethics, and lending itself to that application of ethical principles in particular instances which is properly called casuitry. Geography and the Sciences will likewise provide material for Dialectic.

Dialectic now merges with Reading (does Latin continue or just disappear?), Writing, Debate, Drama, Algebra, Geometry, History, Ethics, Politics, Theology, Geography and the Sciences.  While these are all separate subjects, Sayers simply commands that they all be considered sub-departments of Logic.  Again, who teaches them?  How are they to be studied? 

Here, she continues to show poor judgment.  Any debate conducted according to her looseness and lack of order would quickly break down into chaos and futility.  The students have no theory to reason with besides vague logical concepts, which denies the use of Logic as a “tool” and will lead only to the kind of fault-finding she herself is guilty of here. 

We conclude the essay with no solution at all–only wild opinions, contrary to all tradition and hardly different from the system it pretends to rise above.  The reason for the random memory work was promised for later, but not given. 


If we were to return to Sayers’ original mockery of her society and judge her by the questions she asked of others, we will find her to be no different:

  1. Sayers asked:  “Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?” 

Yes.  I would say Ms. Sayers is one of these debaters. 

  1. Sayers asked:  “Have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees?” 

Yes.  Instead of remedying the problems of education by the restoration of the medieval Trivium, we have been taught what pools our young children need to gather information from.  Why would a group assemble to hear this lecture on education which claims to be (a) the opinions of a non-expert and (b) unlikely to ever be taken seriously?

  1. Sayers asked:  “Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them?  Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?

Yes.  Like the use of he word “Grammar” to mean “Elementary”, the word “Dialectic” to mean “General Logical Concepts” and the “Trivium” to mean a series of stages based on age.  I would have appreciated if Sayers defined any of these terms rather than pretend that she uses them in a traditional way in opposition to modern schools.

Yes.  I am troubled that this mess may lead to dangerous misunderstanding–a misunderstanding I see hundreds, even thousands, of families buying into blindly.

Unlike Sayers, the Classical Liberal Arts Academy would pass these tests.  Our program is truly historical, consistent in its use of terms and not afraid to provide real solutions for problems in modern education–not speaking vaguely of them.  There is no clutter or multiplication of subjects in the CLAA.  The entire curriculum is progressive and oriented toward mastering the arts of learning.  The program leads from the gateway of Grammar to the court of Theology.  Even more, we offer the materials to study, the exams to assess mastery and practical answers–not wild opinions. 

Call it what you wish, Dorothy Sayers’ model is modern education with some Latin and Logic tacked on.  If you see her ideas in another program, you’ll have a better sense now of where they come from and what a poor foundation they rest upon.  Would you not prefer a genuinely classical education founded upon and actually experienced by history’s wisest and best men?

William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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