Learning and Education: Has the Conversation Changed?

Recently I came upon a transcription of a speech Dorothy Sayers gave to the Oxford University in 1947 entitled The Lost Tools of Learning.

Consider one of her opening statements:

Is not the great defect of our education today. . .that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.

Wait a minute – did I say this speech was delivered in 1947? Yes I did. Is this conversation still relevant today? Sadly, yes. How is it, that the field of education is having the same conversation today that it was having 66 years ago?

I keep passing the Lost Tools of Learning along to people because I find it both interesting and troubling. I want to talk about it and see what others think. Consider this from Sayer’s speech:

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects

Consider. . . are we sending our students out into the world unarmed? If, in 1947, we were bombarded with words, words, words, how much more so today?

Immersion programs attract students to our schools. Sayers states that Latin should be the language we teach at an early age. I must confess, I find this idea intriguing, and I think she makes a good case for it:

I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. . .Latin should be begun as early as possible–at a time when inflected speech seems no more astonishing than any other phenomenon in an astonishing world; and when the chanting of “Amo, amas, amat” is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of “eeny, meeny, miney, moe.”

Hmmmm. . . if this is true, it should bear careful consideration.

It’s impossible for me to cover all of Sayers thoughts on education. I would urge you to take a look at her speech yourself.  Is it true, as Sayers, says:

We have lost the tools of learning–the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane– that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or “looks to the end of the work.”

If true, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to talk about it for another 66 years, or get to work?

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)