The Tools of Learning

3 February 2022

The Tools of Learning

A focus for the Commission

By John Watson

The Times is always keen to establish itself at the centre of progressive thinking and it is presumably with this in mind that it has set up a Commission to suggest ways of reforming the British educational system. Actually, it isn’t a bad idea. No one thinks that our educational system is perfect, although it seems to score reasonably well in the tables against those of comparable countries, and it can only be a good thing to look for improvements. Whether the method chosen of assembling a team of around 23 people from the great and good is the best way of going about it is another matter, not because it is other than useful to hear different points of view but because it could reinforce the tendency in educational debate to focus on weight of opinion rather than logic.

There is nothing new about the struggle to improve education and so it is no surprise that perhaps the finest analysis of how it should be attempted and why, was written as long ago as 1947 by Dorothy L Sayers, one of our greatest academics, translators, and of course detective story writers. Her paper “the Lost Tools of Learning” has been discussed before in this column and its argument reflects what is written on the tin. It is so obviously relevant to the current debate that no excuse is offered for discussing it again.

To catch the attention, Sayers begins with a number of concerns which, 65 years on, are disconcertingly familiar. They include: the public’s susceptibility to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda; the inability of debaters to keep to the point and refute arguments; the failure of the press to properly define terms; slipshod syntax leading to misunderstanding; the tendency to isolate subjects without seeing how they interrelate; and the publication of obvious gibberish.

It all sounds very modern, doesn’t it? And her main suggestion is to split education into two parts, known in mediaeval times as the Trivium and the Quadrivium, the first of which gives the student the tools of learning, the second part being the application of those tools to specific subjects.

The Trivium, then, is about the acquisition of techniques which are of use in any subject and in the Middle Ages that had three parts, grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, or to express it in more familiar terms, the ability to absorb and transmit information, the ability to reason and the ability to put together an argument. In this first part of the education it did not really matter by reference to what subjects these skills were being taught. The skills themselves were everything and the basic training was common to all.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the benefits which this element of education would confer upon the modern student. The ability to absorb and transmit information is important in all walks of life and the focus on dialectic would be an antidote to gullibility and the susceptibility to being taken in by false news. Although perhaps less universally required, the ability to argue cogently is a necessary instrument in unlocking potential. Everyone knows that the well-expressed second rate idea normally triumphs over the ill-expressed first rate idea so if we are going to make the best of our scientists we need to begin by teaching them to talk and write persuasively.

Of course one has to look at “grammar, dialectic and rhetoric” in a modern context. Grammar would nowadays include the use of computers; rhetoric would include an expertise in the use of modern forms of communication. Nonetheless the underlying principle is the same. First teach the skills and then teach the subjects. As Sayers points out, a craftsman faced with a new medium “will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool” before he begins to use it.

All this was compelling enough in 1947 but changes since then have strengthened the argument. In those days someone well trained in the job could pursue a successful career provided that they remembered that training. That is becoming less and less the case. Now people have more complex career patterns and need to pick up new disciplines as they go along and as they change jobs. The crucial requirement of their education is not that it should teach a particular skill set but rather that it should teach them how to pick up new ones.

In her paper Dorothy Sayers makes other useful suggestions. One is that in teaching one should use the natural ability and curiosity of the child as it develops through its various stages. For a start, one should use the aptitude of young children for rote learning to feed them information of which they will not appreciate the significance until later. Children going through the “pert” or argumentative phase should be trained in disputation and rhetoric should follow a little later.

Miss Sayers paper is not a blueprint for an educational system and much of the debate between the members of The Times Commission will turn on other issues: the fact that almost everyone regards our children as over-examined, the question of how to challenge clever children without leaving the less talented behind, etc. But it is important that these debates should not drown out the central principle. Education is primarily about how to learn and how to understand. It is not just about, say, learning to do business, learning to program a computer, absorbing a particular set of political myths or running a home. The word “just” here is important because if the basic tools of learning are acquired the rest will follow easily. For, like those who seek the Kingdom of God, the children who learn the tools will find that all the rest will be added unto them.

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