Lost Tools of Learning

Larry Holmgren, my frequent partner in the game of Go, is a professional educator. He was kind enough to relay some thoughts from Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning 1947 lecture, which raise many interesting questions.

Dorothy Sayers’ prefatory remarks include:

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society.

Many, including John Taylor Gatto, have remarked on the artificial extension of infancy to the mid 20s; the more I think on it, the more obvious that schooling as we know it is predicated on such artificial infancy; it strips children of so much autonomy that they may not eat when they are hungry, drink when they are thirsty, nor even eliminate bodily wastes without requesting special permission. They may not choose the slightest detail of their instruction, except in such extraordinary institutions as the Sudbury Valley Schools.

Nowadays, some people actually start college as early as 12 years of age. These early entrants have almost always learned outside the usual institutions; at home rather than in the schools. This suggests that our customary institutions may actually retard the intellectual maturation of those entrusted to their care.

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? [D]o you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible? Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?

Only every time I engage in debate or discussion on the Internet. Dorothy Sayers contends that education began to lose track about four or five hundred years ago. To support this contention, she points to the gullibility of the moderns of 1947; their susceptibility toward propaganda. One can hardly say that the situation has much improved in 2014.

Dorothy sums up her critique with “he remembers what he has learned, but forgets altogether how he learned it.” Lucky is he who remembers what he has learned – most adults will admit to having forgotten most of their school years. As to how he learned it, most have learned not at all; they have been driven to consume and regurgitate certain paltry bits of verbiage upon command; they have learned nothing; they have digested nothing; they have absorbed hardly any learning at all.

From here, Dorothy speaks of Medieval education, as beginning with and completing the Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric – before beginning the Quadrivium, which was divided into “subjects,” something like we have today. But the important part of the Trivium is this: mastery of the use of the tools of language, before using those tools to apprehend other matters.

This is reminiscent of work done by Louis P. Benezet, who delayed the introduction of formal math until the 6th year, in favor of what he called “rhetoric” – the teaching of children to solve problems, and to verbally defend their solutions and ideas. This method succeeded very well, but was not permitted to continue, nor was it extended to other schools.

[Students who lack training in Rhetoric] do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. –Sayers

Sayers has raised many interesting points. She noted, as far back as 1947, that deep-rooted seeds of error had sprouted bad fruit. There may be many ways to fundamentally improve the education of our children, rather than tinkering at the edges. One of these ideas is that of autonomy; a child who is able to defend her own ideas is not a passive vessel for verbiage; nor a piggy bank to be filled with the largesse of her instructors.

Let us contrast today’s standard model of education as teaching – that is, pushing facts into passive young brains – with the model of learning given by Professor Richard Elmore, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has been studying neuroscience lately, and is deeply disturbed by the lack of fit of our “traditional model” of education with what we now know about how children learn:

in terms of brain development and learning, infants and toddlers have to master hugely complex cognitive tasks just as a matter of “normal” development– learning language and interpreting social cues, for example– and we then assume, at some stage, that everything that children learn must be “taught” to them by some knowledgeable adult. What if we flipped this idea on its head and assumed that human beings are essentially learning machines, and that they are highly competent learners by the time they present themselves to us in formal learning environments and our job is to understand how they got there and to reinforce what they already know about themselves as learners. I have a suspicion that most of what passes for “teaching” in our culture is designed to slow down young peoples’ development as learners to a pace that adults can understand and control, rather than to capitalize on what learners can do. ” — Prof. Richard Elmore


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