Here in NYC, words are bartered like a commodity, and how they are used reflects the culture of our day. David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote:
Back when they wrote the book of Proverbs it was said, “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.” These days, a soft tongue doesn’t get you very far, but someday it might again.*
Sitting at her desk in the London advertising firm Benson’s in 1921, a young Dorothy Sayers began to wonder how people could be gullible enough to believe the slogans she and her colleagues wrote. By the time she presented The Lost Tools of Learning in 1947, Sayers answered her own question: the entire education system in the West had been realigned to teach students simply what to think. Dogma had trumped thought.
She knew it was not supposed to be this way. Sayers came from Oxford, where she studied medieval literature and was among the first women to graduate from the storied institution. Oxford and Cambridge were different from other institutions. In tutorials, the dons with whom she studied expected her to come prepared to argue a thesis, to think critically, and to never accept a conclusion without making it her own. “Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably in teaching them how to think. … They learn everything except the art of thinking.”*
Sayers knew there was a deep historical irony in this turn of events. What separates the West from the rest has been our emphasis on self governance, checks on institutional power, and firm resistance to any form of demagoguery. By the time she had written The Lost Tools of Learning, Europe had been brought to its knees by national socialism and fascism. Totalitarianism was beginning to cover much of the planet in darkness. But Dorothy Sayers understood that the courage to resist always begins in the mind, in our imaginations.
What was her strategy to preserve civilization? Go back to what worked in the first place. Sayers proposed a return to an education based upon the medieval Trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Each stage was age-appropriate and built upon the last.
Sayers was confident that children are capable of far more responsibility and acuity than our modern age would have us think. She queries: “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 … which is so marked in our own day?” Who can argue that the modern welfare state has not capitalized on the the psychology of dependence over self-reliance and industry?
Imagine what Dorothy Sayers would say to today’s new media— filled with self-assured snap judgments on the internet, all of which are framed by advertising slogans and other sorts of propaganda. Her prescription would be the same as it was in 1947: classical education—nowmore than ever. Only a person who can think around a problem is in a position not to be the problem.
The nineteenth-century German scholar Johann Herder once defined culture as “the lifeblood of a people, the flow of moral energy that keeps a society intact.” From whence does this “flow of moral energy” come? Surely it begins in the home, and surely it is established in the classroom at the developmental stage when minds of children are filled with wonder and awe about the world around them.
The Christian community has a solemn responsibility to get it right—to not give the Empire the droids that they’re looking for. We must look to the past, to the tradition that has served us so well. As G.K. Chesterton once so memorably observed: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Let the polls open and the voting begin. If I don’t miss my guess, it’s going to look a lot like Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning. And that’s why what’s happening in the classroom every day at the Geneva School here in New York City, and classical Christian schools around the country, matters so very much.
Stages of the Trivium-A Brief Synopsis
In the grammar stage, students learn Latin and exercise their minds through rote memorization. Every subject has a grammar. In mathematics, for example, it is the multiplication table. Think of this stage as a capacity planning exercise. Next, students progress to the dialectic stage in which they learn the rules of logic and begin to distinguish between valid inferences and sound arguments. In the rhetoric stage, students learn to express themselves in eloquent and persuasive ways. All of this culminates in students who can own arguments for themselves, propose their own ideas based upon research, and offer a sound thesis. If you cannot summarize your case in a clear, propositional manner, everyone can see you’re caught in a muddle.
DR. GREGORY THORNBURY is president of The King’s College, New York City.