Why Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 lecture on ‘The Lost Tools Of Learning’ is important today.

Research on ‘The Future Of Work’ predicts rapid and fundamental changes in the knowledge and skills needed in the workforce. Robotic Process Automation, Artificial Intelligence and other digital technologies are disrupting the world of work at a rapid pace. This disruption is likely to be amplified by the reshaping of the economy in response to climate change. The rate and scale of change mean that the half-life of the knowledge taught in many school subjects is short.

To me, it seems clear that:

  • the present generation of school children will face far greater challenges and a faster rate of change than their parents,
  • by the time children now entering education join the workforce, much of the knowledge they’ve learned in school will be redundant.
  • we don’t know what knowledge and skills they will need to have in twenty years time, except that it will be different from today.
  • many adults who have long left education behind will also need to acquire new skills and knowledge to function in the workforce.

What does this rate of change mean for education?

We need to refocus education on its true purpose, to enable children and adults to learn how to think, to communicate and to problem solve.

How do we do this?

I recommend that we start by going back to a speech given at Oxford seventy-four years ago by Dorothy L. Sayers. It was called ‘The Lost Tools Of Learning’. In it, she argued that the…

‘…sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves.’

Sayers, with self-deprecating humour and soft tone, challenged her listeners in Oxford to consider her view that the best way to achieve this aim was to use a modernised form of the Trivium. Her listeners would have recognised the term but she explained it to them anyway, reminding them that, from at least the Middle Ages onwards, the structure of a Liberal Arts education (called that because it was originally the education recommended to slaves in Rome who had won their freedom and wanted to thrive in society) was split into two parts: the Trivium (a sort of foundation course giving students the skills to learn) and the Quadrivium (the four main subjects that learning skills from the Trivium were applied to).

Sayers pitched the idea that we currently pay too much attention to subjects and almost no attention to giving people the basic tools needed to learn and think. She described the Trivium and a pupil’s journey through it as…

‘…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 language—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 (his own arguments and other people’s). 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.’

I’m aware that there are people who challenge the accuracy of Sayers’ summary of the Liberal Arts. Historical accuracy is not the point here, future efficacy is. I’ll evaluate the idea on its merits, not its pedigree.

I see Sayers as arguing that the person who has the best learning and thinking tools and uses them with the most skill, will master new knowledge domains more quickly than someone who has mastered one domain through brute force without acquiring these tools and then has to use brute force again on the next knowledge domain.

Researchers working on the EU’s ‘Skills Agenda For Europe’ have developed a Competence Frameworks approach to teaching and learning Twenty-First Century skills. which echoes a lot of Sayers’ thinking.

I spent twenty-five years working as a consultant helping global companies use new technologies as they emerge. Over that time, my content knowledge had continually and rapidly to be refreshed. My job was to shape how new technologies would be used. Over time, I began to look for and nurture four key skills in my teams. Being a consultant, I called them The 4 Cs.

Curate: the ability to sift through large amounts of data (facts and opinions) and identify and verify what was relevant and place it in a structure.

Challenge: the ability to present data and arguments that will enable people to reassess their assumptions, beliefs and conclusions.

Collaborate: the ability to bring knowledge workers from different disciplines and or different schools of thought together to generate something new.

Create: the ability to use imagination and to excite the imagination of others so as to generate ideas and solutions that are new in the context in which their being applied.

When I read Sayers’ speech, I realised that some form of her Trivium would have given my people the skills I was looking for.

I believe that those kinds of skills will be needed not just by the people currently in school and facing an uncertain future, but by the people already in work whose jobs are being innovated out of existence or fundamentally changed.

Sayers’ speech is witty, accessible, and widely available on the Internet and as an ebook. It’s also only forty-six pages long. I urge you to read it for yourself and see what resonates for you.

To encourage you to do that, I’m going to share with you some of the passages that resonated with me.

I was surprised to find that the challenges that Sayers saw facing people in England in 1947 seem very relevant to today.

Here are four quotes where she discussed the vulnerability to propaganda introduced by the advent of mass literacy in England. Apply them to Facebook and Twitter and I think they will sound very familiar.

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, 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 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?

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.

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 hypnotised by the arts of the spell-binder, we have the impudence to be astonished.

Here is a quote that argues that it is not enough to teach people the content of a subject. They must be equipped to discover and evaluate content for themselves.

The “subjects” supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon. The pupils should be encouraged to go and forage for their own information, and so guided towards the proper use of libraries and books of reference, and shown how to tell which sources are authoritative and which are not.

If you decide to read ‘The Lost Tools Of Learning’, I’d be interested in hearing your reaction.

4 thoughts on “Why Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 lecture on ‘The Lost Tools Of Learning’ is important today.

  1. Thanks for this. I came through a traditional (for my time) education, when there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on rote learning – which can only take you so far. It’s only been more recently that I explored *how* to learn, which is rather backwards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I suspected you might take to this, too — I was completely bowled over by the accuracy and percipience of her observations when I read this towards the end of last year.

    Thanks, too, for sharing and cross-referencing your own experience, which seems to validate the timeless truth of Sayers‘s observations even further. I like the concept of the four Cs!

    Liked by 1 person

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