Suggested Reading: “The Lost Tools of Learning”

Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”
Available here as a PDF.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) briefly entered on a teaching career after graduating from Oxford. She published a long and popular series of detective novels, translated the “Divine Comedy,” wrote a series of radio plays, and a defense of Christian belief. During World War II, she lived in Oxford, and was a member of the group that included C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield. By nature and preference, she was a scholar and an expert on the Middle Ages. In this essay, Miss Sayers suggests that we presently teach our children everything but how to learn. She proposes that we adopt a suitably modified version of the medieval scholastic curriculum for methodological reasons. “The Lost Tools of Learning” was first presented by Miss Sayers at Oxford in 1947.

“Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning…

“Modern education concentrates on ‘teaching subjects,’ leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along. Mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature…

“For 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 could easily add the Internet to this list], 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 a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”

Questions for Students:

  • Hope College has certainly taught you academic subjects, but have we taught you how to think?
  • Why are the Internet and social media so influential in shaping your thinking and your lives today?
  • Can you remember everything that you’ve studied at Hope? Why some things—skills or content—and not others?
  • Has your Hope College education empowered you to be able to learn a new subject on your own in the years and decades after graduation? How?
  • Did your education at Hope teach you how to connect one academic subject to another, for example: science and philosophy? Why or why not?


Questions for Faculty:

  • Why do our students’ intellectual growth and development not keep up with their physical growth and development?
  • Why are radio, TV, advertising, the Internet, movies, and music so influential in shaping our students’ thinking and lives today? What can we do to empower them to engage these media critically?
  • Why can’t people (faculty, staff, students, or administrators) in a conversation or debate address the real issues and answer the real questions being asked?
  • Why can’t faculty members lead committees and keep them focused on their true purpose?
  • Why don’t people (faculty, staff, students, or administrators) define the terms they use clearly so that others can understand what they are saying and respond appropriately?
  • Why can’t students remember what they study and why can’t they learn a new subject on their own? Why can’t we learn new subjects?
  • Why can’t people (faculty, staff, students, or administrators) distinguish between good and bad sources of information?
  • Why can’t or students figure out how one academic subject connects to other school subjects, say science and philosophy? Is it because we can’t do it either?


This post is indebted to David Naugle’s “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning”.