The Lost Tools of Learning

“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 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 spellbinder, 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.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”)

Children are taught various subjects (history, literature, science, arts), but not how to deal with subjects. They are not taught the tools of learning, or organizing, or criticizing a subject, but the facts of a subject from an authority. These lost tool are basic grammar (rules of a subject), logic (rules argumentation of a subject), and rhetoric (rules for articulating and debating a subject). The are taught the basics of reading words, but not of reading for arguments, for biases, for implications, for spurious reasoning.

Dorothy Sayers wrote the above over 50 years ago, but are we, and our children, not still worse off? They know words but not the power of words, nor how to articulate the Word, and are left vulnerable.

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