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Modern Education: 
without Tools?

Recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of classical education, especially in contrast to movements such as the Common Core in public schools. Perhaps no one has explained the great strength of a classical education brought to the modern world better than Dorothy Sayers, author and Oxford scholar, in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” (1947).


We can’t recommend enough taking the time to read her whole essay, but hey - life is busy. If you don’t have time today for the essay in full, take a few minutes to peruse this condensed version of what Sayers has to say about education. (Really in a hurry? Skip to the bold points to get the gist, and come back later when you have time to linger on the finer points.)


If you do want to dive into the full essay, you can find the text here and in a number of other places online. The e-book is also available through Amazon.

The Lost Tools of Learning

paraphrased & condensed, with quotes from the original text in italics

The Modern Predicament

The defect of modern education: We are producing people who may know a lot of facts but who do not know how to learn or to think. Teachers work too hard and have too many things to do (Can I get an “amen!”?), and yet modern education does not on the whole seem to be working well.

“The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects— but does that always mean that they are actually more learned and know more?...They learn everything, except the art of learning.”

  • Despite high levels of literacy, people are very susceptible to mass propaganda, failing to “disentangle fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible.”

  • Debate among adults often shows that many educated people have not mastered basic logic. Poor communication skills are evident, particularly in the written media, opening the door to dangerous misunderstandings.

What is learned at school doesn’t often seem to have a permanent effect on a person, showing that they have not learned to learn.

  • It is not uncommon for people to view all “subjects” as separate and to struggle to make mental connections between different spheres of knowledge. Specializing becomes a weakness when we don’t know how to learn.

In contrast, consider “the medieval scheme of education.”

  • The question: “are we really teaching the right things in the right way?” If we are not managing it, is there anyone who did?

  • The answer: Medieval education taught students how to learn and formed a solid basis on which our culture has thrived till now.


“[I]f we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

  • The medieval syllabus: trivium and quadrivium (simply Latin for referring to the three parts of early education and the four parts of later education).

  • The trivium - grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric - comprises the tools of learning.

“These ‘subjects’ are not what we should call ‘subjects’ at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. The whole of the Trivium was in fact intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all.”

  • The strength of the medieval approach: A deliberate, progressive development of skills and thought, in which “mediæval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.”

  • The weakness of the modern approach: The student learns “subjects” and is left to pick up “the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions” along the way. This weakness has dire consequences for a free society:


“By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words...they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

“We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school leaving-age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school-hours, till responsibility becomes a burden and a nightmare; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.”

The proposed solution: the medieval approach, brought to the present “with modifications”

Recognizing a child’s natural development

  • Young children love to memorize, but are not yet strong in reasoning.

  • Middle school children are “pert”: they love to contradict, to push back, to catch mistakes, and to solve riddles.

  • Older children crave independence and synthesis.

  • These natural stages of development fit easily into the educational scheme of the trivium, with elementary children being in Grammar, older elementary children and middle schoolers in Dialectic, and high schoolers in Rhetoric.

  • The grammar (early elementary) phase is tuned to “observation and memory.”

(WCA kindergarten and first grade students start each day with a series of recitations for just this purpose...and they love it! This is also why our elementary students master their math facts, catechism questions, and Scripture memory verses.)

  • They learn Latin as the “best grounding for education.” It is the foundation for other spheres of knowledge:

“Even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilisation, together with all its historical documents.”

  • It is fun to learn while young: Students should learn Latin as early as possible, “when the chanting of ‘amo, amas, amat’ is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of ‘eeny, meeny, miney, mo.’”

  • Memorizing and reciting should be part of education from early days: “Recitation aloud should be practiced—individually or in chorus; for we must not forget that we are laying the groundwork for Disputation and Rhetoric.”

  • History: Students should memorize dates and lay a basic framework for understanding events in greater detail later on: “ A set of dates to which one can peg all later historical knowledge is of enormous help later on in establishing the perspective of history.”

  • Geography: “Geography will similarly be presented in its factual aspect, with maps, natural features and visual presentment of customs, costumes, flora, fauna, and so on.”

  • Science “arranges itself naturally and easily round collections—the identifying and naming of specimens. To know the names and properties of things is, at this age, a satisfaction in itself.”

  • Math: Memorize math facts and basic routines. "The grammar of Mathematics begins, of course, with the multiplication table, which, if not learnt now, will never be learnt with pleasure; and with the recognition of geometrical shapes and the grouping of numbers. These exercises lead naturally to the doing of simple sums in arithmetic.”

  • Bible: Study of Scripture unites all the other knowledge the student accrues and allows him or her to make sense of it. Students should be instructed early, with an emphasis on memorizing.

“At this stage, it does not matter nearly so much that these things should be fully understood as that they should be known and remembered. Remember, it is material that we are collecting.”

The Dialectic phase (middle school) focuses on developing logic, making use of all that has been mastered by observation and memory.

  • Language: Having mastered vocabulary and spelling, the focus can turn to syntax and analysis (“the logical construction of speech”) and the history of language (“how we come to arrange our speech as we do in order to convey our thoughts”).

  • Reading: Begin to include essays, argument, and criticism, and begin to try writing these as well. Debates and dramatic performances are useful in developing the skills to think through what has been read.

  • Math: “Algebra, Geometry, and the more advanced kind of Arithmetic—will now enter into the syllabus and take its place as what it really is: not a separate ‘subject’ but a sub-department of Logic.”

  • History, "aided by all that been learned in studying the Scriptures, provides an excellent source of discussions regarding the behavior of historical figures, the effects of legislation, the setup of various governments." Students not only memorize dates and facts but discuss and argue and defend their own developing opinions.

  • "Theology itself will furnish material for argument about conduct and morals; and should have its scope extended by a simplified course of dogmatic theology (i.e., the rational structure of Christian thought), clarifying the relations between the dogma and the ethics, and lending itself to that application of ethical principles in particular instances which is properly called casuistry."

  • Geography and the Sciences will all likewise provide material for Dialectic.

Rhetoric phase (high school): “The things once learned by rote will now be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analyzed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis.”

Conclusion: The Dire Need for Change

We cannot say it better than Sayers herself:


The truth is that for the last 300 years or so we have been living upon our educational capital. …Right down to the nineteenth century, our public affairs were mostly managed, and our books and journals were for the most part written, by people brought up in homes, and trained in places, where [the scholastic] tradition was still alive in the memory and almost in the blood…..But one cannot live on capital forever. A tradition, however firmly rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies. And to-day a great number—perhaps the majority—of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out 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—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks…. [Educators] are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.


Want to learn more about how your family can grow in the context of a classical Christian education? We’d love to hear from you! Give us a call (610-458-7177), stop by to visit (213 Little Conestoga Road), or drop us a line ( or contact us).

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