Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Lost Tools of Learning

Dorothy Sayers once wrote an essay that would spark a movement in the United States. Even though she confessed, “It is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect,” history proved her wrong – and her scribblings have launched a renewed educational interest in what have been called “Christian classical schools.”  The entire purpose of the essay was to recover what she believed had been lost in modern education: the tools of learning.

After pointing out some of the trivialities and contradictions within the popular culture of her day (which we are now so used to that we hardly notice them), Sayers zeros in on a single question: “Is it not the great defect of our education today that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the who in teaching them how to think?”  That is, although our students can suck in and spit out an impressive array of facts for a test, do they have the proper mental hardware to encounter new problems and new subjects?  Or are they inoculated to quality thinking and a love of learning by the confusing array of facts they learn, most of which they will forget anyway?

Sayers proposal is that we look several hundred years into the past for the answer. She suggests we look to the medieval syllabus outlined primarily by the Trivium.  The Trivium consists of three phases: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  In grammar students learn primarily language and the raw facts they need to understand the world. In dialectic (logic), students learn the relationship between facts. And in rhetoric (persuasion), students learn to take facts and clear thinking and combine them to become persuasive individuals. These are the three phases of a medieval education.

Sayers imagines a school, then, in which these three phases overlap with three phases of child psychological development, what she calls the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic.  The grammar phase overlaps with a child's “parroting” of others, in which kids naturally enjoy imitation, repetition, and games.  This is elementary school. The dialectic phase comes as the “Pert” in each child escapes around middle school, and naturally becomes argumentative in the early teenage years. Use this questioning of authority, says Sayers, for good educational ends, and teach them to think logically about questions and answers. Finally as high school emerges, students are ready to begin the art of persuasion as they become young adults and prepare themselves for either the work world or specific university studies.

Sayers little essay has caused small revolution in education. With Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, a movement was born to recover an system of education that was developed and perfected for over a thousand years, and only recently lost with the rise of progressivism and secular, humanistic public schools which spread in the early and mid 20th century.  Today the Association of Christian and Classical Schools has endeavored to recover these “tools of learning” for young people today.

Though I am clearly no expert in child psychology, Sayers’ proposal seems to resonate with my own experience and what I see in the school I’m currently serving.  And the focus on giving students a tool for understanding the world and new subjects seems far more valuable than measuring success by how many AP classes you take (and quickly forget nearly all the information). Sayers declares, “For the sole end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”  Here’s my question: do we produce eager learners who go into college ready for new challenges, or data-filled kids burnt out on subjects (or worse, data-empty kids burnt out on facebook)?

As I’ve previously stated in this blog, the end of education must be service (in disagreement with Sayers, who would suggest that it is only more learning).  But, as Sayers points out, have we lost a methodology that produces clear thinkers and eager problem solvers, something our modern, globalized world desperately needs?  Regarding the subject of teaching methodology, as a general outline, one would be hard pressed to find a worthy competitor to the classical Trivium. Though I have yet to be sold on much of actual subjects of classical Christian education (Latin, Greek mythology, etc), I certainly side with the historic church on  how we must teach our students. The Trivium towers over its late-coming competitors.