Have We Lost the Tools of Learning?


“And today a great number—perhaps the majority—of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out our research, present our plays and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits—yes, and who educate our young people—have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the Scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them. We have lost the tools of learning…” – Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Speech at Oxford University, 1947

As Americans, we must first admit that the lament for education is hardly a new song to our ears. We are accustomed to worry and conversation about regaining or maintaining a sense of the place and purpose of education in the U.S. How many of us have overheard conversation starters that begin with “education” and end with, “needs reform?”

But what does that mean?

Sayers describes the trouble of teaching students to think purely in terms of ‘subjects.’ The trouble with such an approach, she says, is that subjects then remain “divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects.’” Students—and adults—who think this way “experience very great difficulty making an immediate mental connection between…such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art.”

She goes on to argue that 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.”

In other words, without the classical seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic), Sayers argues that education fails to teach students the most important things: how to learn, how to engage complex problems, how to think outside particular categories. And indeed, when we are faced with ever-evolving, complex challenges (cited so often as the need for educational reform and policy), it seems like the kind of thinking we will need most is that which the liberal arts naturally cultivate.

If Sayers is right about both the purpose of education and the best method to achieve that purpose, we would be right to lament the state of education in the U.S. But is Sayers right? Have we lost the tools of learning?

Any answer to this question depends upon one’s metric(s) for success and one’s perceived goal(s) of education. Education systems and their efficacy can be measured by a number of instruments and indicators that measure access, quality, and return on investment – and there is no consensus as to what measurement is best. The Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) goals of public education, for example, provide a different baseline than Sayers:

  1. To prepare children for citizenship
  2. To cultivate a skilled workforce
  3. To teach cultural literacy
  4. To prepare students for college
  5. To help students become critical thinkers
  6. To help students compete in a global marketplace

The PBS vision of education offers a different strategy from Sayers’ argument that the purpose of education is to “teach men to think for themselves.” Any education system, according to the PBS baseline, should impart history and culture of the country in a way that empowers students to become active and engaged citizens. Second, one’s education should deliver training that bestows relevant skills, as well as the ability to acquire new ones. Finally, a quality education will convey the importance of contributing to one’s society through labor and other economic activity.

And what of the claim that education must instill in students a moral ethic, as opposed to only knowledge and skills? In The Social Animal, David Brooks bemoans the modern ethos that reason now supersedes emotion.  Rather, Brooks says, reason and emotion should be in tandem with each other, insofar as emotion tells us what we should value and reason provides the intellectual framework to carry out that valuation. This would seem a defense of the liberal arts, since in a liberal arts education, students learn a moral framework that helps them determine how and what to value, the “how to think for themselves,” that Sayers advocates.

But who ought to really be in charge of this process? There limits of educational institutions, and learning occurs in such a wide variety of spaces that we cannot expect a school to teach everything. Thus the old questions of where children and students should learn what —the school? The family?—grow in importance when evaluating the state of education in the US.

To throw one last thought onto the table: While the defenses of the liberal arts are many, society nonetheless benefits from its workers who have highly specialized knowledge or training in a single subject—a very non-liberal arts approach. Similarly, society would not benefit if every person were forced to undertake a liberal arts education. In the German school system, for example, families can choose whether or not to pursue a liberal arts education. After the first years of schooling, some students attend a liberal-arts, university-prep school (gymnasium) but others complete “realschule” or “hauptschule,” which allow students to complete specialized courses while gaining work experience. The government funds all three options available to German students, demonstrating the importance of both liberal arts and non-liberal arts education for German society.

In the U.S., though, our education system still places a primary value on college conceived as a liberal arts degree. While we disagree with Sayers that the only true or best education must be the classical liberal arts, we also think our system doesn't seem so far gone as to say we have lost the tools of learning—perhaps at worst we have lost sight or knowledge of how to best use them.

But we might claim that the most important thing to learn (or re-learn) in this case is not any one subject, but rather something like the joy of discovery. Children have this natural curiosity and creativity, and any educational model we employ must cultivate, not stifle, such curiosity. If we have not lost the tools of learning, at the very least, they could use some polishing up. And that’s where we want to begin the conversation with you. See you in the comments!