Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sayers on Learning

Our good friend and frequent commenter, Alice Linsley, has called my attention to a long and thoughtful essay by Dorothy Sayers, which she has posted on her writing website:


and to her very lucidly written response to that article at:


Sayers is eloquent in advocating a return to or revival of the medieval approach to education which made the teaching of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, known as the Trivium, and constituting a training in how to think and study, a priority before venturing to teach subject matter. The lack of this kind of understructure is a source of much of the confusion and apparent ignorance that infests our society and makes it so very difficult to have intelligent discourse on any matter. Witness, for example, our own comment boards. Though we seem to have attracted a brighter-and-more-thoughful-than-average readership, even here there is a lot of argumentation that illustrates exactly the kinds of problems Sayers discusses. I agree with Alice that this essay and her response make for worthwhile reading for those facing the issues we face.

--------------ed pacht


Anonymous said...

Well, I am reluctant to comment. Nonetheless, I am a fan of Dorothy Sayers and was glad to see this essay posted and the comment concerning the essay. Thanks for both. And I agree with the sentiments of the continuum blogger, Sayers, and A. Linsley.

John A. Hollister said...

For five years, I had the pleasure -- and the frustration -- of teaching law school students, almost all of whom were completely unprepared to engage the written materials which formed the substance of their curriculum.

By "engage" I mean to read those materials competently, with understanding, and yet critically; to analyze, reflect, and then synthesize conclusions from those materials; and to report the results of that analysis and synthesis clearly, concisely, persuasively, and attractively.

By the end of three years of intense study, many of those students had picked up some rudiments of those skills by sheer, dogged, repetition and correction, but that was very much the hardest way to have done it and the result was that many of them, instead of enjoying what should have been the most exhiliarating intellectual challege of their lives, distastefully but doggedly plowed their ways through the course, persisting primarily out of mercenary motives.

How much easier and how much more fun it would have been for them, had they first been taught how to learn and to think, before they were asked to learn difficult and demanding subject matter!

Of course, very much the same thing is probably true for many divinity students, who were traditionally expected to acquire competence in philosophy before venturing those skills and techniques upon the more rarified matter of theology.

Miss Sayers makes a very persuasive case for the value of an even more traditional pattern that might be described as "First get the tool kit, then practice with the tools, and only the try to build something!"

John A. Hollister+