so much education, so little learning

… 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. (Dorothy L Sayers)

My daughter, who home schools her children, recently asked me to read a paper by Dorothy L Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, which was presented by Sayers at Oxford in 1947.

While I vaguely recalled her name hailing from the dim dark recesses of my time at university, I knew nothing of her ideas. That is surprising as old ideas are old and not worth a moment’s consideration and the ever-evolving new concepts are the ‘messiah’ in the world of education.

As a teacher of English, I was most interested to read what Sayers had to say on the subject of education. The lost tools she spoke of were the tools of a classical education based on the Trivium which consists of three stages:

—the Grammar Stage which lays the foundation using the skills of memorisation
—the Logic or Dialectic Stage where the ability to analyse, link and draw conclusions is developed
—the Rhetoric Stage when students synthesise their ideas and learn to effectively articulate through writing and speech.

The Trivium was used as a teaching methodology during the Middle Ages.

As Sayers lamented the state of education and its product in her time, I found in her words my own experienced during my time as a senior high school teacher. And this around fifty to sixty years later into the twenty first century.

What I found in my students was the inability to express themselves with lucid arguments. They regurgitated facts and clichéd phrases, never really getting to the heart of their theses. They would extensively quote authors and commentators, not really understanding what they quoted or why they used the quotes.

When they made statements, usually just stating facts, the students could not appreciate why I continually asked, “Why is it so?” They simply did not understand that they had no understanding of the topic under discussion. They had learnt some facts, but had not truly comprehended the deeper issues of their subject. They were not able to critically analyse and draw their own conclusions.

These students at sixteen and seventeen years of age should have been in the Rhetoric Phase of their development, learning to communicate effectively with clarity and persuasion through speech and writing. Sad to say that they really had no understanding of their language and their vocabulary was appallingly limited. Words such as ‘awesome’ and ‘wicked’ were used ad nauseam. It seems that they were still in the Grammar Stage, memorising information, but not able to analyse and synthesise.

It is refreshing to know that there are some educators who are bringing back the ‘good old days’, even as far back as the Middle Ages. I trust that my daughter will be able to implement the Trivium as a teaching strategy in her classroom so my grandchildren will begin with a solid foundation and their knowledge will lead to understanding and further to wisdom. (Proverbs 2:6)


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I am a Christian and my purpose in life is to give honour to the Lord Jesus Christ in all I do and say.

4 thoughts on “so much education, so little learning”

    1. I’m glad you found Sayers work of value. I no longer teach full time, but do relief teaching. I was frustrated with the system, the students and parents. Unfortunately, I had to deal with students at the end of their schooling, where their learning habits, or lack thereof, were already entrenched. I loved the students and had a great rapport with them. All the best with your teaching and hope you can in some way implement some of Sayers’ ‘lost tools’.


  1. I have posted a reply to your comment on “Don’t offload your memory yet” – just FYI. I think I understand where you are coming from. Lots of respect to you and the profession of teaching.


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