Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Taking a Fresh Look at "The Lost Tools of Learning"

I've taken a little closer look at Dorothy Sayer's 1947 essay The Lost Tools of Learning, which subsequently became a touchstone for "Classical," "Christian Classical" or really it should be "Neo-Classical" or something, and conservative school design after being reprinted in The National Review in the early seventies. The essay is typical of its era, when public intellectuals of all stripes were engaged in a question of immediate, visceral urgency: Can we educate our children in such a way to avoid the next Hitler, Stalin, Mao, World War III? And while it does seem like the kind of thing William F. Buckley would have liked back in the day, the appeal to contemporary American conservatives is more of a stretch.

Here's how Sayer frames the problem:

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?

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?

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 price of salmon--or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Or, more pithily:

I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world.

That is exactly on point. That's the best mission statement for a school I've ever read.

  • Sayers is not making a moral or ethical argument at all.
  • Sayers is rather indifferent about what content is taught.
  • The true purpose of education is "learning to learn," today we might even call it "learning strategies."

Indeed, according to Sayers, by high school, students should have a high degree of autonomy:

...a certain freedom is demanded. In literature, appreciation should be again allowed to take the lead over destructive criticism; and self-expression in writing can go forward, with its tools now sharpened to cut clean and observe proportion. Any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever. It would be well, I think, that each pupil should learn to do one, or two, subjects really well, while taking a few classes in subsidiary subjects so as to keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge.

From what I can tell, a lot of Sayers message has been sanitized and domesticated by those today who cite it as an inspiration -- although I'd love to see an example of this more anarchic vision of "Classical" education. I can imagine Stephen Downes in the middle of one of those schools. Unfortunately, what's mostly been taken away is the use of the trivium to represent stages of development, which is the weakest, least interesting part of the essay. We've learned enough in the past fifty years about child development and cognitive psychology to not lean on this commonsensical simplification.


Jason said...

You know it's funny-- I read this and think that all Hirsch did was extend some of these things in a completely secular, liberal and natural way.

Hirsch's argument agrees completely with Sayer's essay, and then moves a step beyond.

That is, Hirsch would agree that learning as a process occurs through learning common content, regardless of what that content is. He would also agree that one of two important purposes of education is "learning to learn".

However, he would then extend the argument in a way that is quite liberal and is not different from how someone like, say, Lisa Delpit thinks. He would then say that although learning can take place so long as content underpins it, there is an implicit set of content that we expect people to know. This implicit set of content is a common political, social, and economic language of the middle and upper class without which you are at a serious disadvantage. Therefore, not teaching what is already implicitly assumed IS a moral and ethical problem we must confront, particularly since this content is provided in middle and upper class homes and less often in lower class homes.

As a result, although learning is agnostic to what content is required, our society is not. Failing to recognize the implicit cultural knowledge that does exist places a serious burden on those who won't pick it up through osmosis. This is a major driver of inequality.

He would finally add that therefore not only does "what" matter, not only does it matter for ethical reasons, but actually this implies several other critical purposes of education, namely: ability for active and effective civic participation in our democracy (a major driving force of "free and public" education), and increasing the equity of opportunities in social, economic, and political spheres.

The key here is that "I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world." requires content. But content agnosticism risks creating a moral and ethical dilemma.

Anonymous said...


Moral and ethical dilemma? Give me a break. Morals aren't something that you "learn" by reading a William Bennett book. Experience and research would suggest that "teaching" right and wrong in school is a waste of time.

There is simply too much information in the world to know everything that anyone might say is important. This is why Sayers says that "students should have a high degree of autonomy" in choosing what they learn. Unfortunately, we seem to take away more and more of the autonomy, and with it the joy of learning that sustains one throughout life.

Jason said...


You completely misunderstand what the "moral and ethical dilemma" I refer to is.

The dilemma is that if we choose to ignore that there ARE common assumptions made by our journalists, politicians, corporations, etc about what information people are familiar with we risk not teaching this information to a wide group of people whose only crime was being born poor or black or Hispanic.

I make 0 assumptions that you will learn morality or ethics from the content itself. What I'm saying is that not delivering this necessary information to students, particularly the students not likely to be exposed to it outside of school, is immoral and unethical.

Hence, "Therefore, not teaching what is already implicitly assumed IS a moral and ethical problem we must confront..."

Anonymous said...


You're right, I completely misunderstood. But the last sentence is what caught my attention, and I still have a little trouble melding that with the "what" mattering for ethical reasons.

The problem that I have with Hirsch is that he believes that he knows what the "what" is. I don't have any problem with the core knowledge content, but I would suggest that I could come up with a totally different and equally valuable and interesting set of stuff to learn.

The bottom line is that most students don't really learn things if they don't find it interesting.
They may memorize some content for a test, but it won't last long beyond that if there isn't some reason to make what was "learned" important to the learner.