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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: