I want to share a passage with you from Dorothy Sayers’s seminal lecture “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Delivered at Oxford in 1947, her lecture has been reprinted as an essay that has had enormous influence on thinking Christians interested in giving their children an excellent education. But don’t think of her lecture as a dry narration of Medieval history or a nerdy recital of educational techno-speak.
Mrs. Sayers’s lecture was more akin to a prophetic paradigm-buster. One paradigm she tackles is that of teaching subjects. She attacks the modern, progressive assumption that education must be compartmentalized into vacuum-sealed subjects that are taught independently and that leave students unprepared to think and to learn on their own. Her words are quite incisive and thought-provoking:
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. 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 do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. 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; 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.
Is Mrs. Sayers right? Do we leave our children unprotected in battle when we deprive them of the ability to think and learn? How much better is it to teach students the tools of learning?
Providence Classical Christian School teaches subjects. But then again, what we are really doing is teaching many ways to understand the same grand Subject: Christ, who is the Source of all knowledge and the One in whom all truth coheres. As students understand Christ’s creation through science, the power of the printed word (given by Him who is the Word) through literature and writing, the structure of language through grammar and Latin, the story of Christ’s world through history, and the nature of mathematics, students are learning how to think Christianly. And on top of that, history is connected to literature, which is connected to grammar, which is connected to logic, which is connected to math, which is connected to history, and on and on it goes.
Classical education seeks to harness the power of these interconnections and this grand center point in Christ’s Word and unite them under a philosophy of education that teaches students how to learn so that they can be well-equipped to face an often-hostile world with a comprehensive Christian worldview. To do otherwise is to send our children into the world bearing rifles but facing tanks.
Mrs. Sayers referred to being “scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, [but not being] scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of ‘subjects.’”
I’m generally pro-gun, but when it comes to sending our children into the battle of ideas, I’m not. Instead, I’m pro-tank. Let’s teach our children to drive tanks and shoot big cannons. Let’s teach them to think. Let’s train them to be confident in the authority of God’s Word. Let’s prepare them for victory on the battlefield of adulthood.