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Response to Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning”

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

First Premise:
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.)

Second Premise:
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 LearningDorothy Sayers: A Mind of Her OwnThe Wisdom of Dorothy Sayers; D. Sayers' Last Morning in Oxford


Dear Ms. Linsley:

Thank you very much, both for the link to your blog, of which I was
unaware, and for the essay by Dorothy Sayers. I must read that one or twomore times before I comment in depth on that and on your appreciation of it but I can say now that what she said decades ago about the way advertising techniques and the "news" media tend to substitute for considered thought is just more relevant today than it was when she wrote

And as a sometime copy writer she certainly had some personal experience of the advertising world, its techniques and influence (as shown in "Murder Must Advertise", where Lord Peter devised a coupon program for Whiffle cigarettes almost identical to the old Raleigh one: "If you want it, Whiffle for it.")

For five years I taught full-time in law school, where I discovered that all of the BAs and BSs who entered as Freshmen were more or less unprepared for what they were about to encounter. They could be divided into three groups: (1) the accounting and engineering majors, (2) the English and journalism majors, and (3) everyone else.

Over all, the accounting and engineering majors had some notion of the process of analyzing facts and data, they were just unable to express their observations and conclusions except through mathematics and quantitative methods. They had to be taught to apply their analytical skills to historical and sociological facts, which was a relatively small task, and then to write, which was a considerable one.

The English and journalism majors knew how to read and write, they just had nothing to write about. They had to be taught analysis from the ground up.

And all the others had to be taught both to analyze and to write.

This complete lack of critical faculties made me so curious that I began teaching part-time (but 3 undergraduate sections a semester) in one of the typical "universities" that formed part of my law school's catchment area. There I discovered that what passed for college courses were really, by the standards of the 1960s, high school courses, with one anthology-type textbook per course, etc., etc. These undergraduates were perfectly
typical of what I was seeing among the law school Freshmen and had
absolutely no idea that every news article or sound clip, every
adverstisement, every text book, every political speech or phamplet had an agenda and issued from someone who was trying to manipulate them to agree with the issuer.

So, of course, being unaware of the influences brought to bear on them, they were utterly unprepared to decode that propaganda or to see the irrelevancies and inconsistencies in the arguments made to them. I was teaching Ethics, which was a required course for all business majors but
which they were allowed to take without having first taken an introductory course in Philosophy. Thus they had absolutely no clue about systematic, rigorous thinking or that educated people are expected to think about the
process of thinking.

Every single one of them came into class as an unreflecting, knee-jerk
moral relativist, having never been confronted with the consequences of saying "Whatever they do over there, that's okay for them." A few hours spent trying to determine which "they" had decided that pre-Meiji samurai
could chop off the heads of passing peasants tended to confuse that unthinking acceptance a bit. As did, I hope, some time spent
deconstructing the Ruth Benedict/Margaret Meade argument that anything you imagine can be found in some society and is therefore "natural" (in the
unspoken descriptive sense) and therefore is "natural" (in the unspoken prescriptive sense).

I used to posit for these uninquiring young minds an hypothetical discovery of a gene that determines child molesting, after which I would ask them, "so if child molesting were proven to be organically caused, and so 'natural', would that make it 'natural behavior' that is just an 'alternative lifestyle choice' that society should not seek to regulate?"

And, oh yes, hardly a one of them had any notion of actually using the library as anything other than a place to meet their frieds. Research, to them, was something that was controlled by Google; a 10-15 page research paper, with references, was an almost insuperable obstacle....

John A. Hollister+
Hopie said…
As a student I have had a "classical education." One that included Latin, logic, rhetoric, anthropology, and theology. As a teacher, I have had the reputation of being "too hard" because I expected my students to investigate, research, analyze, synthesize, and clearly communicate their thoughts both in discussion and in writing. As a parent and grandparent, I have seen the education offered to my
children andgrandchildren "dumbed" down over forty years, requiring tremendous supplementation in order to achieve even a rational level. Now, on the horizon, there are parents and educators and even some schools restoring what Dorothy Sayer's would consider a classical education. Most of these "revisionaries" are home schooling...taking the God-given position of primary educator to their children seriously enough to "learn it first and then teach it first." I commend them, and so do universities throughout the United States who are finding these student more capable of independent thinking, logical discussion, and dynamic presentation than the average public school product. Dorothy Sayers would be proud!
Thanks, Hopie. I think you're right about more parents wanting to take an active role in the education of their children. Home schooling is one way they can do that. Another way is to support private schools that adhere to the classical education approach.

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