Elevating Education: why I love Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning Education ignites debate and discussion that can often be ferocious in its intensity. Many people have canonised their ideas and reflections about the state of mo...
Elevating Education: why I love Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning
Education ignites debate and discussion that can often be ferocious in its intensity. Many people have canonised their ideas and reflections about the state of modern education. For me, the seminal and provocative essay by the detective fiction writer, Dorothy Sayers, leaves a profound impression because it provokes on-going thought and contemplation. Although Sayers’ essay came to fruition in 1947, it has an enduring quality and still contributes to the current dialogue on education.
In The Lost Tools of Learning, Sayers advocates a return to the Trivium system that was cemented in the Middle Ages. Trivium consists of “Grammar, Dialectics (logic) and Rhetoric”. For Sayers these three components should not be relegated or deemed a part of the past. Rather they should be implemented in modern education because they empower students with fundamental skills that enhance their experience with the learning process. Sayers promotes a return to classical education not to foster elitism but to furnish young people with universal skills. Thus Sayers is not attacking the intellectual capabilities of modern students. Her criticisms are levelled against an educational system that does not always enable students to harness their critical thinking skills and realise their full potential.
Indeed for Sayers, modern education does not serve the interests of individuals or society because it prolongs “artificial” childhood and negates the importance of self-reliance: “To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications.” (Sayers, 1947) Certainly Sayers’ concern centres on the fear that young people are being conditioned to resist mental maturity that was the hallmark of previous generations. However, Sayers’ disdain for “intellectual childhood” makes sense because young people are often tied down to the education system without the freedom to study in a way that does not constrict their intellectual freedom. I would further suggest that modern education fosters regimentation without always challenging students to adapt a proactive and confident approach to learning.
In Sayers’ essay, she examines the idea that young people do not receive education that accentuates their natural aptitude, but rather they are inundated with a flurry of subjects: “The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects – but does that always mean they actually know more?” (Sayers, 1947) Sayers is making a significant point that exposure to multiple subjects does not enhance and develop knowledge. In secondary schools today, there is a great deal of emphasis on achieving an array of GCSEs. Thus, there is unfortunately more appreciation for quantity than quality. The danger in bombarding school children with different subjects is that it puts unimaginable time constraints on them and reduces their chances of analysing or connecting with a subject in depth.
Moreover, Sayers expresses concern that modern education may not be preparing students with the vital skills needed to analyse and critique propaganda and advertising. Thus they struggle to “[distangle] fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible.” (Sayers, 1947) Sayers is not suggesting that young people are less intelligent in the modern era, but that the education system has not prepared students to employ their critical reading skills. I would suggest that in the 21st century there is even more need for skills that nurture analytical expression. Some students are habituated not to question the status quo and thus never question or probe the veracity of what they read or view.
For Sayers more importance is paid to completing “tasks”, but the study of “Grammar, Dialectics and Rhetoric” is ignored and denigrated. Although some schools still reinforce the importance of grammar, the study of logic and rhetoric in secondary schools is often marginalised or completely overlooked. However, Sayers’ contention that grammar, logic and rhetoric should form the fabric of education is critical because the study of these components does indeed facilitate students in transporting their skills across different fields of knowledge. It is important to note that Sayers does not blame teachers for some of the troubling aspects of modern education: “It is not the fault of the teachers – they work too hard already.” (Sayers, 1947) Instead she implies that teachers are over-compensating whilst students are not encouraged to explore and ferment their own ideas.
The overwhelming nucleus of Sayers’ important essay is that the structural foundations of the modern education system are flawed and unnecessarily convoluted: “We have lost the tools of learning – the axe and the wedge.” To Sayers modern education has no long term vision and merely sets out to get students to complete “[tasks] and no more.” (Sayers, 1947) Sayers is making a valid and topical observation. Schools are increasingly curtailing the independence of students and are not cultivating an environment that helps students deliberate and ruminate for themselves.
Too much credence is paid to passing exams. For me, the most disheartening aspect of modern education is that many students forget what they labouriously studied once their exams are over. If learning cannot be retained – what exactly is the point of modern education? Young people should leave school and university feeling energised and ennobled. Schools should imbibe creativity and life-long love for learning. Essays such as The Lost Tools of Learning serve as a reminder that modern education has a critical and indeed moral role to play in ensuring that all students are equipped with critical readingand thinking skills. Education should energise independent thought and not repress it.
By Mussarrat Shaheen
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