Friday, October 19, 2012

“The Lost Tools of Learning”

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?.

— Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning
So we read in the late Miss Sayers' essay on classical education, first given in 1947, a passage that seems to be rather relevant during this political season.

I found the link to this essay on the website of Our Lady of Lourdes School, in Denver, Colorado, which lately has found much success in its adoption of classical methods of education, namely, the trivium, which emphasizes the foundation of all learning. From the school's website:
One of the most important goals of education is to teach students how to learn. This goal can become lost in a mirage of textbooks that oversimplify and remove the traditional classical method of mental discipline to students. The classical method of education not only provides academic rigor, it also instructs and prepares the students to become independent thinkers based on their knowledge of grammar, logic and rhetoric. In short, classical education prepares and equips students to be leaders in the community with their ability to communicate logically with their peers and colleagues.
The roots of the classical tradition of learning are lost to history, but they crystallized in ancient Athens, in the mystical yet mathematical school of Pythagoras, and in the philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle, following the master Socrates. While we don't know how much of this knowledge was perceived by these Greeks alone, we do know that they also passed down wisdom from Egypt and the East. These methods became the standard of good education in the Roman Empire, as we find in the books of the architect Vitruvius, and were retained through the middle ages and beyond, rendering it the ultimate “multicultural” curriculum, finding favor with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagans over thousands of years.

While modern pedagogy has emphasized the learning of useful facts or political propaganda (or nowadays, passing standardized tests), the classical model instead narrowly encourages a high level of language skills, logical thinking, and the ability to communicate persuasively. This is the foundation for a liberal education, that is, an education proper to a person who is free and not a slave. It is assumed that children who have these educational tools will freely learn throughout their lifetimes, and will have little need to be specifically taught various subjects, for they will eagerly learn these things on their own.

This is a two-edged sword: for the Catholic schools, a classically educated child can either end up to be an ardent defender of the Faith or a formidable arch-heretic, for it produces children who are either hot or cold, but not lukewarm. I think for this reason, our public schools (which by the way, have compulsory attendance) tend to produce children who are lukewarm, while remaining curiously inarticulate about the malaise of their lives, leading to either self-destructive pleasure-seeking or to violence. Therefore it is not surprising that the education which is forced upon children is not a liberal education, but rather is the education of a slave.

1 comment:

  1. I have always respected the high level of quality of the Catholic school system. They tend to be the most classically educated of American students. Have they shifted their approach and need a return towards the classical?