My Response to Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning

by Ben McReynolds

This is my second time reading Dorothy Sayers’ essay, and this time around I am especially struck by how much I do not understand.  Certainly it is not her intention to intimidate but rather to sell the form of education that she is describing, and her overall presentation is effectively inspiring.  Doubtlessly, she never expected this work to be so studied seventy years after penning it, but I am certainly glad that she took such care to offer her criticism and her solution.

I am stirred by two examples that she provides in her essay, examples of poor logic that was accepted in mainstream culture as scholarship in 1947, because they describe a very familiar scenario.   Information that is sold as science and mainstream scholarship can be untrue, and when logical standards for truth are no longer being applied the information is quite likely untrue.  I am especially amused by the materialist, even Darwinist and Marxist, leanings of the information being sold as science in her examples.  One example is an attempt to disprove the existence of a Creator and the other is a use of anthropomorphism that attributes human experiences to ants.  If these erroneous views of nature and, ultimately of human nature, were propagated back then with such disregard for classical scrutiny, how much more now!

I only recently discovered what materialism is.  I had always assumed it was the general greediness that exists around Christmas time, but a reading of G. K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man has assisted me in understanding true materialism and its influences and effects upon academia and our culture.  Materialism is the monist philosophy that nothing exists except matter and its motions, as contrasted with a belief and regard for the spiritual and moral realms found in theology.  Chesterton and Sayers both make the strong case that academia is incomplete without theology.

Sayers’ emphasis upon the importance of theology in a classical education leads me to two hypotheses.  The first is that there must be inherent Christian leanings of a classical education.  The second is that in order to avoid Christian leanings in education, theology must be stricken, and thus classical education is essentially lost.  It is difficult to say whether or not the architects of our current educational system intended to produce poorly educated people, but the results are in.  And I am suspicious that, while not fully intending to produce imbeciles, the leaders of our educational system have simply continued to lower expectations, content that by removing theology they have done the important part.

Sayers contends that study of theology, the “mistress science,” and of Scriptures and ancient texts with a hunger for spiritual truth will lift students above the ants and into the heavens, in stark contrast to contemporary controls on academia that aim only to satisfy earthly agendas and fill bellies.

Sayers comments on the sinking feeling that must accompany anybody watching the way committee meetings and debates took place in her day, with the overwhelming amount of time spent on irrelevant information and the inability of committee chairs to properly handle their responsibility.  She emphasizes the tragedy of this situation that such processes (committees and debates) have such importance today but are not effectively accomplished.  If she could only see us today!

Doubtlessly, the most important part of Sayers’ essay is the technical assistance she provides for those who would wish to take her candid critique seriously.  Her modesty and her wisdom shine as she lays out suggestions for business structure and curriculum, with seemingly no expectations.  I do not consider myself to be a theologian or a scholar, but I do reject materialism.  If it is accepted that God’s will has been affecting human history since human history began, then perhaps it is appropriate to suggest that this essay was an act of faith.  Implicit in her words is that her immediate audience will likely not understand or simply not care enough to try, but in her faithfulness to pen the words and God’s faithfulness to sustain them, the essay has found a generation of hungry readers with sufficient desperation and courage to try.