Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Lost Tools of Learning

We recently discovered Dorothy Sayers' wonderful essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. I had also read Tracy Lee Simmons' Climbing Parnassus earlier in the winter, and it stimulated many reflections about what today's our students are missing in their educational years.

Although her indictments were for another generation, the charges are even heavier for the present times.

Excerpt: "...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."

Some targets on Ms. Sayers' radar -

1. Failure to rigorously teach an understanding of language - including its structure and critical analysis, and its use in reasoning and persuasion.
2. The importance of a developmental education - or different strokes for different folks - (is there any reason that conventional U.S. education neglects dialectical thinking?)
3. The virtues of memorizing great literature and poetry
4. The importance of teaching logic and argumentation
5. The importance of giving rhetorical age (high school) learners the opportunity to extrapolate their knowledge in different contexts and discover where their knowledge ends.

Ms. Sayers again: "I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world. 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. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door."

Here in the States, education by committee often means that the educational product agreed upon by multiple tiers of evaluators and experts is a patchwork compromise package. It may be that no one person completely likes the end product, but that it represents the least worst option.

What Sayers argues for is an emphasis on the processes of critical reasoning and learning. It is not rote vs. creative learning, but rather a model that values both. The classical educational model that she defends seems antithetical to the "express yourself" approach to learning that puts heavy emphasis on personal opinion and expression without critique the validity or process by which conclusions were arrived. The beauty of the well-tooled mind is that it can apply itself to any new situation or subject because it knows how to think and learn about anything. Essential prep for thriving in the new millennium.

The Lost Tools of Learning

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