Alice C. Linsley
I have been fond of Dorothy Sayers’ writing for over twenty years. It was while reading her Lord Peter Whimsey novels that I came to appreciate the power of literary fiction and I began to write fiction. I consider Sayers’ Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night to be the most finely crafted English mystery novels ever written. They reveal her exceptional eye for detail in story telling, her remarkable vocabulary and grasp of syntax, and her spiritual insights.
Sayers' facility with the English language rests on her exceptionally good classical training. In “The Lost Tools of Learning” Sayers begins by criticizing the modern tendency to regard specialized talking heads as “authorities” on everything from morals to DNA. She opines that the greatest authorities on the failure of modern education are those who learned nothing. We can imagine chuckles coming from some in her audience and frowns on the faces of self-important academics.
While Sayers is correct that we can’t “turn back the wheel” to the late Middle Ages when metaphysical exploration was still regarded as an objective of education, she nevertheless urges that we consider patterning education along those lines in order to restore the lost tools of learning. Sayers draws on her extensive knowledge of the medieval period to help us understand which tools are essential if students are to be life-long learners. She lays the groundwork by asking her audience to consider some “disquieting thoughts” about the direction of English society in the mid-twentieth century and identifies the following concerns:
Irresponsible prolongation of intellectual childhood to justify teaching less in more subjects
Confusion of fact and opinion, or the proven and the plausible, in the media.
Sophistry in public debate, rather than logical rhetoric.
Committees addressing mostly irrelevant matters expected to form public policy.
Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean.
A society of adults who don’t know how to discern legitimate expertise from popular pulp and who can’t use the library.
The tendency of some people to become so specialized that they can’t make connections between the disciplines.
Scientists who fail to adhere to the basic principles of Aristotelian logic, thus presenting speculation as facts.
Sayers’ critique of the society in which she lived is relevant today, as these problems have become more pronounced in our time. In 35 years of teaching I have seen the materialist worldview come to dominate public education and inch by inch erode the more balanced offering of private schools, parochial schools and even Christian schools. This is the disastrous outcome of Pragmatism's hold on American public education. Once metaphysics is excised from education, we are left with a mechanistic, materialistic, and blatantly false view of reality. And we wonder why our students are not learning? Why they seem unmotivated, and lack skills for intelligent living?
What does Dorothy Sayers recommend? She suggests restoration of the two part syllabus of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, which together provide “one coherent scheme of mental training.” Sayers illustrates how modern intellectuals misrepresent medieval metaphysical education by pointing to how one such intellectual confuses location and extension, something that a classically trained high school sophomore would hardly stumble over, having learned the principles of Aristotelian logic.
Sayers provides quotations from the Times Literary Supplement to demonstrate the widespread ignorance of good reasoning. I’d like to provide an illustration from contemporary life. I teach a college class on Philosophical Ethics. Students were asked to read Jonathan Rauch’s “Case for Gay Marriage” in the required text. They were to assess his argument using syllogistic reasoning. Out of 18 adult students, not one was able to identify Rauch’s premises or identify his conclusion. Finally, I had to do the assessment for them. Here is what I showed them:
J. Rauch’s Fallacious Argument
Marriage is necessary to providing reliable caregivers. (This assumption is not true. It is, in fact, verifiable false since we are able to observe that reliable caregivers exist who are not married to the people to whom they provide care. In fact, some paid caregivers are superior in their reliability than some spouses.)
Marriage is necessary to tame men. (This assumption is hypothetical and unverifiable. Who says that men need “taming”? What does “taming” mean? Does it mean to make men more effeminate or to teach them to cook and clean? Are all unmarried men untamed? Are all married men tamed?)
Therefore, marriage is equally necessary for heterosexual and homosexual couples. (His conclusion is not valid as it does not necessarily follow from the premises.)
Rauch’s premises are not verifiably true, so this is not a sound argument. Further, his conclusion does not logically follow from his premises, so this argument is not valid. Lacking true premises and a valid conclusion, Rauch’s argument is said to be “fallacious” or logically false.
It is indeed “disquieting” that an entire class of students, mostly already in the work force, was unable to logically assess Rauch’s argument. American students are unprepared to defend truth and are therefore prey to panderers and false authorities. Without the classical methodology, modern education is proving to be a futile enterprise. The “intellectual capital” of past ages is entirely spent.
Sayers is spot on in suggesting that the time to tackle such argumentation is when students are at their most argumentative, that is, during the first 3 years of high school. This is the perfect time to teach them to identify invalid inference and to debate the merits of an argument. As she reminds us, children are “born casuists” and can be taught to appreciate a “well-turned argument.”
When students begin to recognize the limitations of logic and human reason, it is time to turn to Rhetoric, which “will tend to show them that all knowledge is one.” Here we find ourselves on solid metaphysical ground where we quickly discover that there is absolute truth or there is nothing, and it is impossible to be a nihilist and be well-educated.
Related reading: Pragmatism and American Education; The Lost Tools of Learning; Dorothy Sayers: A Mind of Her Own; The Wisdom of Dorothy Sayers; D. Sayers' Last Morning in Oxford