Tools of Education

For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command.—Dorothy Sayers

On an afternoon in May 2021, I found myself in the courtyard of one of my favorite schools, mesmerized as I listened to an accomplished teacher explain creation stories to students. In some cultures, the sun is the dominant force. But Genesis states God created light on the first day and the sun on the fourth day because God is more important than the sun in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The experience reminded me an ordinary conversation when the same teacher told about Aristotle’s position on the natures of plant, animal, and human souls.

I felt lucky to be there for many reasons. I like listening to passionate teachers and watching as students, in wonderment, ask about concepts and mysteries. And I’ve enjoyed substituting during the pandemic at a school where I could work onsite and students could learn in person. 

During the summer of 2020, I had considered the risks I was willing to take by substituting and decided to work at just one school instead of several. That way I’d be exposed to potential infection at only one location and I wouldn’t take the chance of transferring germs from one campus to another. I contacted one of my favorite schools, Bishop Machebeuf High School, and told them I’d be working only for them so they could use me however they liked. I imagined myself shooting video of a lecturing teacher or supporting remote learning in some other way, but mainly they wanted me to monitor study hall and do a little substituting in humanities, logic, and rhetoric classes. 

Machebeuf is less than a mile from my home, but that’s not the only reason I chose it. It reminds me of my alma mater because it’s a Catholic institution and, just as my education was quite traditional, Machebeuf has been transitioning to a classical track. I also like the school because teachers, administrators, students, and parents all seem to be of one heart. If there’s a lot friction among the groups, I can’t see it.

This courtyard has been the site of conversations about creation stories, the natures of souls, economic systems, literature and more. Photo by Buffy Gilfoil

The Trivium

As in years past, I enjoyed reading some items I came across at school. In particular, I was intrigued by “The Lost Tools of Learning” by British author Dorothy Sayers.

In this speech presented in 1947 at an Oxford University vacation course on education, Sayers extolled the value of the classical curriculum and suggested the stages at which different approaches should be taken. She said:

We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or ‘looks to the end of the work.’ What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labour, if at the close the chief object is left unattained?

She traced the origin of classical education to the Middle Ages, admitting that mid-20th century schools would not return to the ways of the Middle Ages. But she said, the classical model could be used to approach teaching differently. Instead of looking at subjects as the primary focus of education, they could be viewed more as vehicles by which students learn how to think and learn.

One of the main components of classical education as explained by Sayers and as practiced at Machebeuf and many other schools is the Trivium. 

Let us look at the mediaeval scheme of education—the syllabus of the Schools. The syllabus was divided into two parts; the Trivium and Quadrivium . . . The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order… The whole of the Trivium was, in fact intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to subjects at all.

In short, a student learns the following through the progression of the Trivium:

  • First, grammar, the structure of language, “how it was put together and how it worked”
  • Second, logic, how to use language, including “how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct and argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s)”
  • Third, rhetoric, “how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.”

Grammar School

One definition provides for grammar is “a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language.” As a writer, that’s generally the way I’ve thought of grammar. But, Sayers uses both that meaning of the word, as well as the broader “principles or rules of an art, science, or technique,” so that I now finally understand why the early grades are called “grammar school.”

In learning grammar a student learns language, Sayers said, emphasizing  “language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed.” 

She advocated for Latin, saying “even rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labour and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.” Latin is included in the curriculum at Machebeuf, as well as a nearby public elementary school that teaches in the classical tradition. My two years of high school Latin were some of the best classes I had for developing writing skills.  

Sayers proposed teaching grammar when students were at a stage where they could easily memorize. “In English, verse and prose can be learned by heart, and the pupil’s memory should be stored with stories of every kind—classical myth, European legend, and so forth. . . . Recitation aloud should be practiced—individually or in chorus; for we must not forget that we a laying the ground work for Disputation and Rhetoric.”

She suggested including “dates, events, anecdotes and personalities” in the grammar of history and including attention to geography and science. “The grammar of Mathematics begins, of course, with the multiplication table,” she said.

With the exception of Latin, she said the “curriculum contains nothing that departs very far from common practice. The difference will be felt rather in the attitude of the teacher, who must look upon all these activities less as ‘subjects’ in themselves than as a gathering-together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium.”

Act Of MindProductLogical ExpressionIt can be
UnderstandingConceptTermClear or unclear
JudgingJudgmentPropositionTrue or false
ReasoningArgumentSyllogismValid or invalid
Students learn about the components of a logical argument.

Formal Logic

Sayers defined Logic as “the art of arguing correctly” and said students are ready to study logic when they show the capacity for abstract thought and the tendency toward “interminable argument.” She said, “For as, in the first part, the master-faculties are Observation and Memory, so in the second, the master-faculty is the Discursive Reason.”

One book Machebeuf has used is Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Princples  by Peter Kreeft. which condenses the essential knowledge of the subject to two pages, having to do with mainly with terms, propositions, and syllogisms. 

Kreeft also lists thirteen reasons to study Logic, including potential enhancement of faith and happiness. But my favorite is this: 

Logic will also help you to write more clearly and effectively, for clear writing and clear thinking are a “package deal” . . . There is nothing more effective than traditional logic in training you to be a clear, effective, and careful writer. It is simply impossible to communicateclearly and effectively without thinking clearly and effectively. And that means logic.

Along the same lines, Sayers said, “This is the moment when precise-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 to 50 percent.”

Returning to the Trivium at large, she said:

Towards the close of this stage, the pupils will probably be beginning to discover for themselves that their knowledge and experience are insufficient, and that their trained intelligences need a great deal more material to chew upon. The imagination . . . will re-awaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason. This means that they are passing into the Poetic age and are ready to embark on the study of Rhetoric.

Compelling Rhetoric

In studying rhetoric, Sayers said, “The doors of the store-house of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will. The things once learned by rote will be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analysed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis.”

In various contexts, I’ve come across speeches that have opened my eyes and stirred my soul. In 1797, Sojourner Truth repeatedly posed the rhetorical question, “Ain’t I a woman?” It could (logically) be argued that rhetoric was a major factor in the election President Abraham Lincoln, even though some of his most famous words, including his 1858 house divided speech, were spoken when he was competing against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Ronald Reagan called America “the shining city on a hill.” 

At Machebeuf, rhetoric students annotate and analyze speeches, paying special attention to grammar or structures, arguments or logic, and rhetoric or expression, with emphasis on figures of speech. They pay attention to appeals to character, logic, and emotion, known respectively as ethos, logos, and pathos.

When I substituted, we read the letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 when he was in the Birmingham jail. Among the many memorable passages is one where King speaks of: 

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.

When we read John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, I tried to convey to students some of the ways that the young president stood out. He was the first Catholic elected to the office, he had a young family , and his charisma came in large part from his rhetoric. I also told them that words near the end of the address were remembered for decades and may always be associated with President Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

On that May afternoon in the courtyard, some students were discussing ideas among themselves. One supported capitalism; another spoke up for socialism. One favored Shakespeare; another Mark Twain. 

They obviously had rediscovered the lost tools of learning and I was glad to be able to observe them as they skillfully used those tools. 

If you’d like my help with a writing or editing project, I’d love to hear about it.

Joan Sherman was my guest editor for this post.