Five Different Approaches: Dorothy Sayers

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Dorothy Sayers and Classical Education

Classical education has its roots in the classical era of Greek and Rome. Roman children learned to speak and read Greek and Latin. Boys developed the logical skills to argue in the forum. The rhetoric skills to convince the masses to follow them.

The medieval times carried on the tradition and expounded on it. Universities gradually sprang up. Greek and Latin still formed the basis for educated men and women.

Then we reach the eighteen hundreds and new educational philosophies developed. People questioned the automatic teaching of Greek and Latin instead of teaching practical skills and new knowledge.

The educational system changed for better and worse.

Enter Dorothy Sayers into the scene.

In 1947 Dorothy Sayers gave a lecture titled The Lost Tools of Learning at Oxford University.  She outlined a course of education that sparked imaginations around the world. Eventually, it became the modern classical education movement.

What did she expound in her lecture? That while we teach students subjects, we fail to teach them to think. We fail to teach them to learn.

We must return to the first part of the medieval syllabus, specifically the Trivium.

The Trivium consists of three parts, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Not subjects but rather skills children and adults need in order to tackle the subjects of the Quadrivium or any other subject for that matter.

The Trivium envisioned by Dorothy Sayers

Grammar Stage (9-11 years old)

The first stage is the Poll-Parrot Age or Grammar stage. Children between 9 and 11 are in this stage. These young children love learning things by heart. They rejoice when asked to recite. They also accept things without questioning.

These kids don’t try to trap us in contradictions. Instead, they listen with eager ears to everything we say.

The grammar stage is the time to begin the study of Latin, as we should begin Latin as early as possible. Dorothy Sayers recommends post-classical and medieval Latin rather than classical Latin.

During the grammar stage, children memorize verse and prose. We fill their memories with stories, tales, myths. Children learn of past events, dates, and people in history.

Geography and science aren’t neglected either. These young children memorize capitols, rivers, mountains, collections of facts such as plants, animals, and planets.

Sums, mathematical facts, geometric shapes, groupings of numbers, and other mathematical facts are also memorized. Theology is learned.

The goal is to give the children material to work with during the dialectic stage. We don’t force them to explain what they’re learning, just learn it, store it, and absorb it. They’ll need it in the dialectic stage.

Dialectic Stage:  (12-14 year old)

The pert age begins when children become sassy and argumentative. They love to catch you out in contradictions. They adore finding mistakes in their books. The nuisance value is through the roof.

It’s time to begin Formal Logic and teach these kids to think.

Children learn syntax and analysis. They write essays and critics. They learn algebra, geometry, and advanced math.

In history, geography, and science, children discuss and argue the ethics and reasons for various actions. They make connections between events. We expect them to explain events and put them into perspective.

Dorothy Sayers spoke of requiring the kids to use the facts, stories, and dates. To put the facts memorized in the grammar years to use. These facts provide fodder for their arguments now.

In short, we expect the children to think. To take situations in their own life and argue the ethics for and against. Is it right, is it wrong, why and why not?

It’s now time to teach children to analyze everything. To break it apart, think about it, and consider the ramifications.

Not in an ugly way, but to see the beauty of a well-constructed argument. We don’t argue to hurt and destroy. We argue to find the truth and beauty according to Dorothy Sayers.

The specific subjects studied aren’t important. The system of critical thinking and argumentation is important. Children learn to use facts they know to consider the world and their place in it.

Towards the close of this stage, students find they need more material. they have more to learn. Their imaginations reawaken.

Rhetoric Stage (14-16 years old)

We’ve entered the poetic age: the age when children believe themselves misunderstood and are self-centered. They long to express themselves and reach for a synthesis of what they’ve learned.

Dorothy Sayers doesn’t try to map out a curriculum for the rhetoric stage. If we’ve done our job well, our teens are ready to study anything. Instead, she recommends we focus on only one or two subjects rather than trying to cover 6-8 half-heartedly.

Let the teenagers dive into a specialty of their choice and immerse themselves in it. Become experts rather than trying for many subjects and only superficially covering those.

At 16 the kids are ready for university and the study of the Quadrivium – or their major.

Is it enough?

If we have done our jobs well, our children are ready for life. They know how to memorize facts, analyze these facts, and then take the facts further and apply them creatively to their own lives.

Our young adults have learned how to learn, how to think, how to express themselves. They’re ready for advanced learning and adult life.

By following Dorothy Sayers, we have given our children the Lost Tools of Learning.

Read more of the 5 Approaches to Classical Education posting this week:


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15 Comments

  1. So we were a classical homeschool for at least 2 years before I finally started teaching Latin.I was just so resistant to teaching it until I read Teaching the Trivium. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around having a High School Student really only work on 2 classes. I get the idea of depth, I just haven’t figured out how that would translate into a transcript.

    1. I think that’s why very few of the classical books such as Teaching the Trivium and The Well-Trained Mind actually drop down to 1 or 2 subjects. Unit study might work using history or science as a base, but there’s still the study of Latin and math… unless your Latin is strong enough to read works in the original Latin for history and science. It’s an interesting challenge! 🙂

  2. I just read Sayers Lost Tools of learning tonight, again. I love her thought processes! I compare the trivium to learning about stop signs. First we learn what a stop sign, what is looks like, what we’re supposed to do. Then, during the “Pert” age, we argue with the stop sign. Literally! We ask it why it’s there, how it came to be, etc. And we prove to ourselves whether a stop sign is necessary or not at that particular intersection. Finally, in the rhetorical stage we don’t actually need the stop sign anymore because we would wisely stop at intersections anyway! Wouldn’t it be lovely if the world were full of wise people who didn’t need stop signs? With wisdom comes freedom. Ignorance breeds bondage. Sorry, long comment! Just getting my thoughts out!

    1. Jennifer, isn’t it true, kids in the “Pert” age argue with everything! I love the image of a kid arguing with the stop sign. 🙂 I’ve always thought of the trivium as building a car. First we learn the parts, then we learn how to put it together, then we build our own. But it doesn’t account for the arguing!

  3. Sayers is a fascinating figure to study. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Thank you for stopping by the Thoughtful Spot Weekly Blog Hop this week. We hope to see you drop by our neck of the woods next week!

  4. Great series! I’m off to read the other posts. I think it is interesting contemplating the trivium as stages of development as opposed to skills to be mastered like the ancients used them. Very interesting!

    1. It’s a fascinating development. I find it meshes well with my experience raising kids. First they’re cute and parrot everything we say. Then they turn argumentative. Finally the kids turn thoughtful and talk for hours working out their thoughts and believes.

      That being said, there’s much to be said for the traditional interpretation of the trivium as skills to be learned. During the days when all educated men and women learned Latin and Greek, kids first learned the grammar of the languages. Then they learned to argue and analyze. Finally the kids learned rhetoric.

      What’s fascinating is that the skills and stages overlap to a great degree. Kids learned the grammar during the grammar years, when they were happy memorizing without question. Just as kids were finishing learning the grammar of Latin and Greek, they were beginning to argue. The argumentative years and the study of logic overlapped again. Then they learned rhetoric as the kids turned philosophical. At this point they were ready to learn the quadrivium at university.

  5. Great blog, thanks for sharing such wonderful stages of trivium. I think it is interesting, the trivium as stages for development of skills as ancients did.

  6. Thank you, Sara, for sharing such a great blog!!! I have read a little bit of Trivium and what I have come to know Is in ancient times if any skill is to be mastered Trivium was used. Some of the great techniques. Keep Writing such great articles.

  7. Quick question of direction and hope. I’m a father of three. My youngest is sophomore in high school and had a tough freshman year.
    Where do I begin with him. I did not recognize he was so far off track. My older two took to learning like ducks to water.
    I have never been concerned with grades, just understand the material grades will fall where they may.
    I seem to have dropped the ball.

    1. Donald, I would start slowly, subject by subject. First, make certain he reads well and then have your son free read every day. Next, figure out where he is in math. Find a good curriculum and start covering a lesson in math. Do the same with writing, languages, history / social studies, and science. Take one subject at a time, make certain it’s progressing well, and then move on to the next.

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