Dorothy Sayers and “The Lost Tools of Learning”

“For the sole true 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.” —Dorothy Sayers

What a powerful sentiment, because it is True! I recently had occasion to read Dorothy Sayers’s speech—later adapted into an essay—entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning“; it was akin to my first reading of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences: a lightning bolt of the True and the Good striking directly upon my mind.

In the speech, Sayers lays out the medieval method of learning, the Trivium, consisting of Grammar, Dialectic (or Logic), and Rhetoric, we she argues should be divided into age-appropriate stages (the “Poll-Parrot,” the “Pert,” and the “Poetic”).  Each stage corresponds with one aspect of the Trivium (the Poll-Parrot studies Grammar, the Pert studies Logic, and the Poetic studies Rhetoric), and while the ages aren’t precise, they basically include when children are knowledge sponges and can learn anything (the parrot, roughly elementary school and earlier); the stage when children start questioning everything and love trapping adults in logical contradictions (the pert, roughly middle school); and the age in which children are on the cusp of adulthood (around fourteen- or fifteen-years old).

This essay is an absolute must-read.  It is long, however, so I’m offering up some of my thoughts on the essay, which has already taken root in my soul, forcing me to re-examine and reconsider how I approach teaching.

My philosophy of education is very much aligned with Sayers’s, though in execution it is not always so neatly applied. I am a big believer in learning the “grammar” of something—its rules, its structures, its parameters, its limitations—as the foundation for learning everything else. Sayer relates grammar to languages, specifically Latin, but it applies to many “subjects.”

For illustrative purposes, consider music.  Music consists of its own “grammar”: the twelve-tone scale, notation (with all its “punctuation,” like bar lines, fermatas, rests, double bar lines, codas, etc.), harmonic theory, counterpoint. Anyone can make music—even great music!—without a full understanding of these elements, but knowing them helps to craft compositions that are rich, lively, and beautiful.

My jazz theory professor in college, the great jazz pianist Bert Ligon, taught us that, “you must learn the rules of improvisation to break them.”

There are two deep insights there: first, that jazz improvisation is not just random noodling (as my nineteen-year old self thought), but actually a structured, albeit spontaneous, creation; and second, that in order to innovate artistically, we must know the fundamentals first.

Like Sayers, I believe that applies broadly to all “subjects”—to learning generally. From there, we can proceed through the Trivium as she outlines. I was familiar with the Trivium and Quadrivium prior to reading Sayers’s essay, but she puts in such a clear manner, I can see its vestiges in my own teaching. The Trivium simply makes sense to forge, as the somewhat overused phrase goes, “life-long learners.”

I also am a strong believer that the best ways to learn are by doing and by teaching. By doing something for ourselves (with proper guidance and direction—it’s no use swinging a hammer, to paraphrase Sayer, if we don’t know how to do so properly, or how to aim it precisely), we internalize the activity. In the process, we naturally learn valuable lessons, and slowly improve the craft.

By teaching, we engage in Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric: we must be able to explain the topic, subject, concept, principle, etc., in a way that is succinct, structured, logical, and clear. In my music classes I often employ a “master-apprentice” system, whereby more experienced musicians teach their classmates techniques and concepts, resulting in a sharing of knowledge and technique.

It also deepens the bond of the group, and allows students to be a part of a lineage of student-musicians: past, present, and future. For example, I can trace the influence upon my percussionists back over the past twelve years. Each percussionist, to one extent or another, has experienced the influence of that Ur-percussionist on his or her playing style. Every musician, therefore, is part of a greater heritage, carrying on and building upon the influence and knowledge of past musicians.

Learn by doing and by teaching, with a strong foundation in the fundamentals: that is my philosophy of education.


9 thoughts on “Dorothy Sayers and “The Lost Tools of Learning”

  1. 2 philosophies I stood by when I was teaching were:

    1) Raise the bar and lift everyone to it, and

    2) If a student has little interest or enthusiasm in your subject, find something they do have an interest in and encourage it.

    If I’d continued teaching at college level, I’d have taught at university standard. You want the best for your students and they should always be encouraged to reach higher.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent points, Ponty. Whenever I get a student who in Music who just isn’t interested in playing or singing, I’ll teach them to run the soundboard or to use the lighting equipment. They love that stuff.


  2. I should also add that reciprocal learning is key. Teachers should never see themselves as the fountains of knowledge. They can learn as much from their students as the latter can from their teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Outstanding article, Port! Well done you!

    Of all the jazz I’ve heard – all quite by accident because I don’t like jazz, by and large – the best piece I’ve heard is Take Five. I LOVE that piece!

    I don’t have the lexicon to discuss it but there is nothing in that piece that does not please me.

    Liked by 2 people

      • That’s just it; I don’t like jazz – I just like Take Five by Brubeck.

        Have you had a chance to listen to the link to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, Sayers wrote that in 1947 and it’s a whole, different, worse world now, especially when it comes to what they’ve been passing off as education for the last 40 or 50 years. There’s no room allowed for Sayers’ Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric anymore. Now, it’s just the digestion of rote facts and figures, with the Dialectic and Rhetoric being actively censured.

    And, BTW, I think jazz is the best example, though and abstruse one. You can only teach the Grammar of jazz and hope the student already learned how to learn so that they can then discover for themselves their Dialectic, and Rhetoric in jazz’s “language.”

    And that is what the school system actively refuses to do – teach children how to learn, the Grammar of learning as it were.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Something I find heartening is the growing number of ‘classic education’ centers. Many of them were started after Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, and Aristotelion teaching methods being brought back. Re-learning how to think as opposed to learning what to think.

      Liked by 1 person

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