What appears below is nothing more than a very brief overview of Sayers’ life, the context of the “Lost Tools of Learning,” the educational view that flows from that, and its shortcomings. I’m midstream in writing a full-length biography of Sayers’ life and work, and my view of the liberal arts is presented in On the Nature of the Liberal Arts. The goal here is to simply point out that Sayers’ vision of the classical liberal arts is less than the actual liberal arts, and that Catholic children deserve the opportunity to study the seven liberal arts.
Dorothy lived a sheltered, isolated early life in which she lost herself in the reading of imaginative literature. She was a talented student of language. She did receive an early introduction to Latin, but it was ultimately faulty and incomplete. Her true love was modern language, in particular French, and she benefitted from a live-in French teacher. Her education in other subjects was lacking, and she struggled in math at every level of her later education, just as she struggled to pass her Latin and Greek exams later at Oxford. At Oxford, she was a carefree student who coasted on her natural talent, but through the interaction with Professor Mildred Pope, she learned the value of careful scholarship. Her study at Oxford focused on the rudiments of French Grammar, and she earned a First Class Honours degree in Modern Languages.
After leaving Oxford, she struggled to be able to live on her own, taking brief teaching positions which she disliked. Ultimately she was able to gain financial independence in two ways: a nine-year position as an ad-writer and through her popular detective novels. She avoided educational work during her productive years, but due to her personal struggles with her own decisions in life and the rise of evil powers during the era of the Second World War, she became concerned with the inability of people to fend for themselves against propaganda.
During this time, she read a book called Total Education by M. L. Jacks, the head of the Department of Education at Oxford. She took exception to his short dismissal of education during the Middle Ages. She thought that the mediaeval curriculum offered some value that would help remedy problems people were experiencing in their own time. In response to this, Mr. Jacks invited her to give a talk at a vacation course in education held at Oxford in 1947. Dorothy gave her speech “The Lost Tools of Learning,” speaking out of her range, as she was by no means adverse to do.
“The Lost Tools of Learning” does not present a return to the actual Trivium and Quadrivium, which comprise a substantive course of interconnected study that teaches students to learn from God’s first act of Revelation: Creation.1 In contrast Sayers recasts the Trivium and adapts Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric to three stages of development the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic, respectively. Within these, students are to learn what she calls the “art of learning.” The tools gained from this study can then be used for all further study in “the subjects.” The Quadrivium she misinterprets, eliminates, and substitutes with whatever later subjects a student may pursue.
The Poll-Parrot stage itself offers two “master faculties,” which she identifies as “Observation” and “Memory,” and the whole of this stage is keyed to the study of Latin Grammar. She mentions a “grammar of history,” a “grammar of Mathematics,” etc., each, like Latin Grammar, with the aim of “gathering together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium.” At this point, besides including Latin Grammar at all, “our curriculum contains nothing that departs very far from common practice.”
In the Pert stage, “our curriculum shows its first sharp divergence from modern standards.” The master faculty is “discursive reason.” The focus of this study “lies not so much in the establishment of positive conclusions, as in the prompt detection and exposure of invalid inference.” Here she continues on in the pattern suggested in the Poll-Parrot stage and recommends the study of language turn to “syntax and analysis,” reading to “essays, arguments, criticism,” and mathematics to “algebra, geometry, and the more advanced kinds of arithmetic [which] will now enter into the syllabus and take its place as what it really is: not a separate ‘subject’ but a sub-department of Logic.”
In these first two stages, Sayers’ focus is two-fold: (1) the building of individual linguistic skill, first in the acquisition of an inflected language and second in the ability to recognize logical flaws in the argument of others, and (2) the acquisition of information of whatever kind: as she wrote of the Poll-Parrot “What the material is, is only of secondary importance” and the Pert “Once again, the contents of the syllabus at this stage may be anything you like. The ‘subjects’ supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon.”
In the Poetic stage, while Sayers mentions the student is “ready to embark on the study of Rhetoric,” she also states “It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded.” This stage appears to be without any real content. It doesn’t seem to offer any particular means by which the student will “keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge” other than being sure that he takes some mix of subject matter. At this point, the student has received what Sayers has to offer. He or she may now specialize or may not necessarily continue on at all in formal education.
Considering that the Poll-Parrot stage by Sayers own admission differs little from modern education besides the inclusion of some Latin Grammar, that the Pert stage includes a primary focus on the detection of logical flaw in others’ arguments, and the Poetic stage merely suggests a time of self-expression and sense of an understanding of the interconnectedness of knowledge, it is fair to assess Sayers’ vision as primarily a focus on language understanding and debate skills. She was concerned with the inability of people during her time to use language well, and she believed this lack of ability made them easy prey for advertising and propagandists.
In the actual Trivium the goal is not to learn linguistic skill primarily for the purpose of self-expression and argument, but in contrast, Grammar, the art of speaking rightly, is the study of symbolic language as the means by which we engage the various parts of God’s Creation, Logic is the mental system of necessary relationships founded upon the necessary order of Creation, and Rhetoric is the art of right expression of truth gained from the study of the above. There is a development of the student’s linguistic ability, but the primary focus is the reception of God’s message sent to us in Creation, which in turn, prepares us to rightly receive the subsequent stages of that message both in philosophy and theology.2
Students who follow Sayers’ lead in the Quadrivium lose the great benefit that they may receive from studying Boethius’ De Institutione Arithmetica and De Institutione Musica, Euclid’s Elementa, and Ptolemy’s Amalgest. The actual Quadrivium studies quantity as the first accident following substance. The four quadrivial arts grow in a step-by-step necessary course that opens up to students an understanding of order present in the natural world that encompasses even the order of the stars. This study provides the natural precursor for what is then fulfilled by the Church’s liturgical year, and consequently, demonstrates the supernatural fulfillment of the order of time present to humans in their daily lives in the natural world.
Dorothy L. Sayers was a talented woman who did produce entertaining novels and did compose works to defend Christianity, but it is also fair to recognize that she lived a life in many ways out of balance with the teachings of the Faith, and her academic work was used as an excuse to avoid right living as a human being. This is not to present an ad hominem attack against her, but rather to illustrate that her vision of education in some important ways mirrors her overall view of life: the academic work itself is what is important, apart from the actual lived human life of the individual. Even Sayers herself, later in life, recognized the shortcoming of her own approach: “It may be that our particular type of intellectual has had its day…I think it is very likely that the time has come that we ought to be superseded.”3 The Catholic children of today deserve a liberal arts education that draws them towards their Creator, so that they may learn to live a life in right harmony with His Creation.