Visions of Education Conference: October 2019
a lecture by Roy Peachey.
Since this is a conference dedicated to the educational vision of St John Henry Newman, I have naturally decided to base my talk on an essay by … Dorothy L Sayers, partly, no doubt, because I have a naturally contrarian streak, partly because Paul Shrimpton has spoken much more effectively about Newman’s educational thought than I ever could, but partly too because, drawing on Newman’s own ideas, I want to talk about the development of an educational tradition, a tradition of which Newman, Dorothy L Sayers, and we are all a part.
So, there will be a lot of Dorothy L Sayers and not so much St John Henry Newman for the moment. But just to reassure you, I haven’t forgotten my brief altogether. I have remembered that this is a conference about visions of education and so I shall set out an educational vision over the next half an hour. However, I should also say at this juncture that the ideas I’m throwing out here today are meant to provoke discussion and do not necessarily represent the views of my employers or my headmaster, to whom, of course, I defer in all matters educational.
So, in true schoolmasterly spirit, I’m going to set you some homework. You’ll almost certainly forget every word I say this evening and be left only with a vague emotional afterglow, though that may, of course, have more to do with Thornycroft’s excellent hospitality rather than my talk, so I would like you to at least remember the talk on which it is based: Dorothy L Sayers’ “The lost tools of learning”, which began life as a paper read at a vacation course in education in Oxford in 1947. You can find it easily online so please do go away and read it once today is over. There won’t be a test at the end of the week but that doesn’t mean you can get away with not doing the reading.
Dorothy L Sayers’ “The lost tools of learning” is a quite brilliant talk. For those of you who only know her detective stories – or for the youngsters among you who don’t know even those – I need only say that what she had to say back in 1947 was both wise and funny, which I’m sure you’ll all agree is not a combination that you tend to get in educational vision statements. In fact, her talk is so good that I was sorely tempted to dispense with my own one altogether and simply read you hers instead. However, in the end, cool reason prevailed. That and the thought that Peter Brown might decide I hadn’t earned my post-conference meal or, even worse, that he might drop his kind offer of overnight accommodation and dispatch me to the southern wastelands straight after the conference. So, Peter, I will deliver the talk I promised, though I will quote Dorothy L Sayers liberally, starting right now.
“Without apology, then,” she said, “I will begin. But since much that I have to say is highly controversial, it will be pleasant to start with a proposition with which, I feel confident, all teachers will cordially agree; and that is, that they all work much too hard and have far too many things to do. One has only to look at any school or examination syllabus to see that it is cluttered up with a great variety of exhausting subjects which they are called upon to teach, and the teaching of which sadly interferes with what every thoughtful mind will allow to be their proper duties, such as distributing milk, supervising meals, taking cloakroom duty, weighing and measuring pupils, […] making out lists, […] filling up forms, interviewing parents, and devising end-of-term reports which shall combine a deep veneration for truth with a tender respect for the feelings of all concerned.”
So now that Dorothy L Sayers and I have you on our side, let’s attend to her argument, which, in a nutshell, is this: “the great defect of our education today […] [is] that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think”.
How contemporary it sounds. And how very like some of St John Henry Neman’s comments in The idea of a university it sounds too. He wrote about minds that “cannot fix their gaze on one object for two seconds together” and students who “profess that they do not like logic, they do not like algebra, they have no taste for mathematics; which only means that they do not like application, they do not like attention, they shrink from the effort and labour of thinking, and the process of true intellectual gymnastics.” Does that sound familiar?
His comment about attention is particularly interesting. If I were to set some additional reading for those of you who finish your homework quickly, I would suggest Matthew Crawford’s The world beyond your head: how to flourish in an age of distraction or Cal Newport’s Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world, both of which pay a great deal of attention to the problem of inattention in our contemporary world. I have written about the problem myself in Out of the classroom and into the world, laying the blame largely on our relationship with technology. Newman’s words are a salutary reminder that technology is not the root cause of the problem, though it has significantly deepened it.
Anyway, that’s a digression. In fact, it’s a digression from a digression, so let’s get back to the main point, which is Dorothy L Sayers’ analysis of the great defect of the education in her day.
“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate,” she asked, “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? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do 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? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
“Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a ‘subject’ remains a ‘subject,’ divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects,’ so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between […] such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?”
Sadly, we don’t have time to look in detail at these paradoxes this evening – unless Peter decides that a suitable penance for my having strayed from the rules of engagement would be to answer questions for the next three hours – so I will move onto the answer Dorothy L Sayers provided to the problems she identified.
She argued that “if 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 progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.”
Putting to one side for the moment my loathing of the term “the Middle Ages”, I want to explore this apparently reactionary suggestion. A reactionary suggestion which, of course, takes us right back to the work of St John Henry Newman.
In one of the most brilliant chapters of The idea of a university, the one with the unpromising title of “Knowledge viewed in relation to professional skill”, Newman summarised his argument in this way:
“I have been insisting, in my two preceding discourses, first, on the cultivation of the intellect, as an end which may reasonably be pursued for its own sake; and next, on the nature of that cultivation, or what that cultivation consists in. Truth of whatever kind is the proper object of the intellect; its cultivation then lies in fitting it to apprehend and contemplate truth. […]
This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education.”
Underlying Newman’s idea of a university was a conception of education which we have largely lost sight of today. Both he and Dorothy L Sayers believed in liberal education. Now, as I’m sure you know – but I didn’t when I started teaching despite having had the many advantages of a grammar school education and an Oxford History degree, which I mention only to point out how low we have sunk – a liberal education for many hundreds of years consisted of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Dorothy L Sayers’ great innovation was to link each part of the Trivium with a separate stage in children’s development. They pass through a Grammar stage before moving onto a Dialectic and then a Rhetoric stage. The Quadrivium – separate subjects – was what students moved onto once they had passed through the first three stages of development.
So let’s look at the Trivium in more detail. In an important passage of her talk which cuts through the whole skills-knowledge debate that has marred educational thinking in this country for too many years, she said that:
“The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.”
Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these ‘subjects’ are not what we should call ‘subjects’ at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a ‘subject’ in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language – at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. 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. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself – what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language – how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.
And then in a passage which reminds us how little has changed in the last seventy years, she said:
“It is, of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval tradition still linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus of today. Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreign language […] School debating societies flourish; essays are written; the necessity for ‘self-expression’ is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all ‘subjects’ stand in a subordinate relation. ‘Grammar’ belongs especially to the ‘subject’ of foreign languages, and essay writing to the ‘subject’ called ‘English’; while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of the curriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of school hours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main business of learning. Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on ‘teaching subjects,’ leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; mediaeval 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.”
This, surely, is a very perceptive analysis not only of the educational landscape in Dorothy L Sayers’ day but in ours too. The great tradition lingers but that is all. Whatever subject we teach – and that is still how we think of ourselves, as subject specialists – we hope our students will be able to write fluently, argue persuasively and spot errors quickly but we haven’t really got time, or even the expertise, to teach these skills ourselves. We rather hope that someone else is onto it and if they aren’t, well we’ve still got the syllabus to get through and the exams are rather pressing.
All which should make us reconsider what it is we’re about. What is it we’re trying to achieve? If we think about that question at all, we imagine the answer to be something like respectable exam results so we keep parents/senior management/OFSTED off our backs. But surely there’s more to education than that? Surely our vision should extend beyond the narrow horizons of the public examinations?
What Dorothy L Sayers’ great essay reminds us is that one of the great educational tasks of our day is to learn to handle the tools of learning. So let’s get on and consider what this might mean in practice.
I thought I’d start with grammar because that’s bound to provoke a reaction. Now, of course discussion of grammar never takes place in a vacuum. All of us here today have either been subjected to grammar teaching or been ignored by it. So, I would like to ask you to step away from your own experiences for a moment if you can and consider the whole tradition. This is where looking at St John Henry Newman’s work can help us. The section on Grammar in The idea of a university is unintentionally hilarious because Newman begins from a base that is entirely different from any we might have known. He assumes a high level of basic grammatical knowledge that most students – and most of us – simply do not possess. What’s more, when he writes about Grammar he means “the structure and characteristics of the Latin and Greek languages,” though the sentence that best demonstrates the essential difference between his situation and ours, I think, is this one: “Nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study.” His concern is now our ideal.
The tradition – for good or for ill – has moved on. Moved on but not disappeared altogether. So my argument is that Grammar is still important, it does still need to be taught systematically, and it is not beyond the reach of children, even little children. How do we know this? We know it because Dorothy L Sayers happily got one thing wrong in her talk. She happily admitted that nobody would take a blind bit of notice of her suggestions, neither parents, nor training colleges, nor exam boards, nor school governors, nor the Ministry of Education. And it is true that her ideas have been largely ignored in this country. However, remarkably, her essay has been taken up with great enthusiasm by Liberal Arts colleges in the USA and by home educators across the world, especially those who have been inspired by versions of the classical curriculum that have emanated from the States.
What this means is that the teaching of Grammar has not disappeared nor has it stood still. On Tuesday I attended a lively home education cooperative run by parents here in the UK. It follows a rigorous classical curriculum in which formal grammar is taught to the youngest grades. Were the students bored by reflexive pronouns? No they were not. Partly because they sang them. Just as they sang their Latin verb endings and their History timeline. These young students have fun and a phenomenal knowledge of grammar (and Latin, History, Geography, Maths, Science etc).
This group was a Protestant one but there are Catholic equivalents which are also very interesting. There’s a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth at the moment about how we’re ever going to create a Catholic curriculum but the truth is that various authentically Catholic curricula already exist. We only need to look outside the narrow confines of the British education system to find them.
Anyway, that’s an aside. Let’s get back to grammar. Or, more precisely, to the grammar stage and the importance of memorisation. My 7 year old is currently (and happily) learning all sorts of facts about the Treaty of Tordesillas, aquatic biomes, and the first conjugation future tense. She can’t use the overwhelming majority of what she is – I repeat – happily learning but when the time comes – and the time will come when she moves into the dialectic stage – she will have these oft-repeated facts at her fingertips. Like a tool. She can’t make a cabinet but she knows her way round a chisel. For health and safety purposes, I would like to make it clear that I am, of course, speaking entirely metaphorically.
When students pass from the Grammar stage to the Dialectic stage of their education, they start to manipulate the language, to work with it, to experiment to a limited extent. They still work systematically but now they are beginning to explore. You may be familiar with some of the books used at this stage of students’ development. Books like The writing revolution and The lost tools of writing, which was of course directly inspired by Dorothy L Sayers’ talk.
With the language of grammar in place, it is possible for students to use language, to define terms and make accurate statements, to construct an argument and to detect fallacies in argument. I need hardly point out how important these tools are in our current day and age. Once grammar is secure, dialectic becomes possible. Once dialectic is secure, rhetoric can be taught.
All this explains, I think, why the creative writing clubs I have run in various schools over the years have had such limited success (though, of course, it is also entirely possible that I’m simply looking to justify my own lack of skill). A high point that turned out to be a low point came when a lad with the surname of Shakespeare joined my creative writing club at the London Oratory School. Not even his presence tipped the balance of the literary scales.
Never having been taught to write systematically, students tend to resist intervention when it comes to their creative work. As Dorothy L Sayers suggested, they may want to express themselves but they don’t often want to improve their craft, even though improving their craft is what will truly help them express themselves. The truth of the matter is that we all need to know how to handle our tools before we can properly start work.
As I draw to a close I want to address a couple of obvious questions that may have been raised by all this. The first is: how will we teach the teachers? Dorothy L Sayers said that “the teachers themselves would have to have undergone the discipline of the Trivium before they set out to impose it on their charges.” But I think a better way of addressing this problem is to think about teachers learning alongside their charges. Certainly, one of the greatest and most unexpected joys I have found in being a home educating dad is that I – who am supposedly well-educated – and am now learning alongside my children and am often being taught by them.
Indeed, this is the approach taken by the authors of The lost tools of writing. Parents and teachers learn alongside the children they are teaching.
The second question is: how do we fit all this into an already crowded curriculum? The answer is that we don’t. Dorothy L Sayers argued that students will be ready to start the subjects which are proposed for later study at university at the age of […] 16. Yes, that’s right. No GCSEs. Yippee. For students leaving school at 16, she argued, the Trivium was enough.
“At the end of the Dialectic, the children will probably seem to be far behind their coevals brought up on old-fashioned ‘modern’ methods, so far as detailed knowledge of specific subjects is concerned. But after the age of fourteen they should be able to overhaul the others hand over fist. Indeed, I am not at all sure that a pupil thoroughly proficient in the Trivium should not be fit to proceed immediately to the university at the age of sixteen, thus proving himself the equal of his medieval counterpart, whose precocity often appears to us so astonishing and unaccountable.” Is this such a ridiculous argument as it first seems? I know a family whose son completed a Catholic classic curriculum at home, skipped GCSEs entirely, and has recently gained 4 excellent A Level grades and an American AP in just one year. I met another student this summer who didn’t take GCSEs or A Levels and was offered a place by four medical schools through UCAS on the basis of her Catholic classical education. If we get the basics right the rest will follow.
I fully appreciate that what I’m calling for is radical. Or, at least, radical in the British context. I appreciate that our educational structures make such changes fundamentally difficult to introduce. But my response is twofold. First, I would argue that there is absolutely nothing wrong with going back to our educational roots. Dorothy L Sayers’ ideas have been tried and they work, albeit by US schools and home educators who have freedoms that most British schools do not. And second, I would argue that success can sometimes come at times and in forms we had not expected. When Cassiodorus tried to set up a school in the 6th century it failed. But out of the ashes of this failure emerged his vision of Christian Liberal Arts that transformed the educational landscape of the next thousand or so years. Closer to our time and the theme of our conference, when St John Henry Newman attempted to set up a Catholic university in Dublin he failed too. But out of that failure emerged the inspirational teaching of The idea of a university. Our task today – I humbly suggest – is not to succeed but to have a really good go at rediscovering and implementing an authentic educational vision. Let’s turn to Dorothy L Sayers and John Henry Newman who themselves turned to the liberal education of their forebears for inspiration. Let’s forget about SMART targets and measurable outcomes and launch out into the future, confident that we are part of a vibrant, living tradition and that the results of our work are in God’s hands.