Dorothy Sayers essay | Transcript for SS #49

Episode Premise: Dorothy Sayers’ essay, Lost Tools of Learning, is a significant source for the reintroduction of classical Christian education in America today; this discussion focuses on the key claims and aims of Dorothy Sayers’ summary.

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Brandy: You’re listening to Scholé Sister’s episode number 49.

Welcome to Scholé Sisters, the podcast for the classical homeschooling mama who seeks to learn and grow while she’s helping her children learn and grow. Scholé Sisters is a casual conversation about topics that matter to those of us in the trenches of classical homeschooling who yearn for something more than just checking boxes and getting it all done.

I’m your host, Brandy Vencel. You can find me at Afterthoughts—that’s my main blog, and also Teaching Reading with Bob Books, which is where I keep my line of printable phonics lessons. You can hear more from me on my other podcast, AfterCast. My co-hosts today are Pam Barnhill and Mystie Winckler. Pam is a speaker, podcaster, blogger at, and author of the book, Better Together as well as the book, Plan Your Year, which is so new—right now you have to preorder it on Amazon.

Mystie is a second-generation homeschooler with five kids and too many projects. She writes about practical, classical homeschooling and organizing attitudes at Simply Convivial. This episode is sponsored by the Sistership. Have you joined the Sistership yet? Mystie and I will tell you more about the Sistership at the end of this episode, but for now, if you want more information, you can visit to find out more.

This episode is the first of two episodes in which Pam, Mystie and I discuss Dorothy Sayers’ famous essay The Lost Tools of Learning. Today, we’re focusing on all the good stuff that is often overlooked. And so, without further ado, let’s get to it.

dorothy sayers essay

[00:02:43] Scholé Everyday

Brandy: Okay, let’s start off with our Scholé Everyday. Who wants to go first?

Mystie’s Pick: Commonplace Quarterly

Mystie: Well, I have been enjoying my Commonplace Quarterly, which I got in the mail this week, so I read it this morning with my coffee. I, of course, turned to Cindy’s article first, and that was lovely, and then just kind of paged through the photography and the art inside is so beautiful. It’s just really high-quality; the pages are really thick. It’s an amazing project. I read the article from Cindy and the one by Nancy Kelly—was really good. Then I started on the—so, there was a bonus, or whatever, included in the envelope where a three-page handwritten letter (it’s a copy, but just lovely handwriting and some art on the bottom), so, it starts off its addressed to my young friend and I’m like, ooh that’s interesting that she’s assuming that we’re all young.

Do I get to still be counted as a young friend? That’s kind of nice. What? Didn’t Cindy call us her middle-aged friends this summer? I was like …

Brandy: I think we’ve graduated to old—we get older every time we talk to that woman! [Laughter]

Mystie: Look, so someone’s calling me their young friend, and then I realized that it was actually addressed to the children of the house. The Instagram sleuthing has revealed that it is by Lynne Bruce. But, it’s just a lovely letter.

Brandy: Oh, of course it is.

Mystie: But, there’s even a special piece in there. I haven’t read it yet. I just looked at the pictures and read some of the captions but there’s the centerpiece of the magazine is about Ambleside and the country around there and it’s like almost like a “walking tour” sort of article through Ambleside.

Brandy: Oh, cool.

Mystie: That looked like it needed tea in the afternoon instead of coffee in the morning.

Pam’s Pick: Mind to Mind

Pam: And oh, alright, so I am reading Mind to Mind.

Brandy: That’s a good one.

Pam: By Charlotte Mason and Karen Glass, yes. And basically, it’s Brandy’s fault.

Brandy: You’re welcome.

Pam: There you go. So, I was reading (oh, who’s the sweet lady who did the paraphrase of the Charlotte Mason books? The modern …) …

Brandy: Leslie Laurio.

Pam: Yes. So I was reading that and then basically Brandy guilted me into …

Brandy: That’s so not true.

Pam: She guilted me into reading the harder version because she made me feel bad.

Brandy: Not my fault your conscience convicted you.

Pam: So [audible] over there, so I figured, you know, Mind to Mind would take out all the Victorian stuff, because you know how those Victorians are?

Brandy: Oh, Mystie.

Pam: No, I do really enjoy watching Victoria on PBS which is a weird aside. But anyway, so I’m reading it and my book club is talking about it. Though some of the girls have the other version. They have the newer (was it brown with flowers or something like that?).

Brandy: Oh, yeah.

Pam: So some of them have that and then we have one girl who we told her, “Yeah, that’s a bootleg copy.” She has an old copy that’s not a pink book, kind of one of those …

Brandy: Oh, yeah.

Pam: Oh yeah. So we all let her know what was wrong with that one. But she said she bought it at a used bookstore. But anyway, we’ve been reading it. It’s been good. We do about two chapters a month. And so I try not to read ahead—even though it’s really good and I could read ahead—I try not to read ahead because if I do then I forget what I’ve read when it comes time to talk about things.

Brandy: Oh, yeah good point.

Pam: Yeah, there’s lots of highlighting and that’s my excuse …

Mystie: That’s my excuse for reading the same day.

Pam: Okay. Yeah, there you go. There’s a lot of highlighting in here and I’m always like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve heard Brandy say this before.” “This is what Brandy always says.”

Brandy: I’ve got to tell you that re-reading those books with my book club always makes me realize I’ve never had an original original idea in my entire life. “It turns out I didn’t think of that one either.”

Pam: So anyway, I’m enjoying it.

Brandy: Good.

Pam: And I appreciate Karen for doing all the hard work there and making it accessible.

Brandy: Yeah, that’s a brave thing to do. But I guess way over there in Poland she’s protected from people throwing things at our for daring to abridge the Charlotte Mason sacred cow.

Pam: I just want to know when she’s going to get on to the rest of the volumes because I’m probably going to want to read those eventually.

Brandy: I bet that won’t happen. Sorry. I think she thinks that, you know, that’s—what do we call it?—that’s like the grand finale or the magnum opus, and so that’s the one, and now she’s onto other things, I think.

Pam: Yeah, I don’t blame her. And like I said, I don’t really think I’ll read the rest of them. It’s probably just this one and then I’ll move on to reading other things, but I appreciate this. And it is kind of fun to do because I’ve heard so many things over all the years, so it’s kind of fun to actually read the words myself.

Brandy’s Pick: Bleak House

Brandy: Yeah. Well, mine is a Victorian book. [Laughter] It’s Bleak House by Dickens and I think I’ve had this sitting on my shelf for a long time. I am pretty sure that I picked this up at a used bookstore years and years ago after hearing Cindy mention that that was an important Dickens to read.

Mystie: I read it when—well, I listened to it when Ilsa was a baby. So 11 years ago. Maybe that’s why I did.

Brandy: It might have been because that would be about when I think I picked it up. I mean really, it was I just happened to run across a nice hardback copy around the time, I’m pretty sure it was her, that I heard her not I should say heard, I think I read it on her blog somewhere, and so I picked it up but then I just never read it because you know, a Dickens novel is kind of a commitment.

Mystie: Bleak House is a big one.

Brandy: It is. It’s huge. But I’m glad, it’s very interesting. I mean, there’s two speculations on why the troubled—it’s not really the main character but one of the main characters, Richard (I don’t remember his last name right now), but anyway, why he is the way he is. So he’s like aimless and he just can’t really make a commitment and he can’t find a career. Like he’s very much reminds me actually some of the stuff that Charlotte Mason says about the Waverly novels and about how Waverly is wavering like the description, sounds very similar.

There’s this sense of like, well, it’s because there’s this court case, this unresolved court case, that if it would just be settled then he would be rich and he wouldn’t have to have a career and he wouldn’t have to whatever, so, you know, you kind of see that with the children of the wealthy, sometimes they were so rich that it kind of ruined them. It kept them from having to find direction and have resolve, and you know, that kind of thing but I don’t think I would have caught this if I had read it back 11 years ago just because I wouldn’t have read enough about education yet to have caught this. The narrator (her name’s Esther and every chapter is not in the first person but a lot of them are, so whenever there’s a first-person chapter, it’s called Esther’s Narrative or something and she’s giving her own perspective), anyway, she is often blaming his lack of resolve and character on his lack of good education.

He goes to this classical school when he’s young and he learns to turn a great Latin phrase, but it’s like no one ever actually worked on the character aspect of him. So he’s indecisive and he’s wavering and he can’t make a choice and he can’t commit to anything and he wanders from activity to activity without following through and she saw all of that as something that his education, when he was at boarding school, should have taken care of. It’s her little comments are very interesting in light of some of the things we’ve talked about and in light of the idea that education has to do with your character or your virtue and not just your skills and your knowledge.

So anyway, her little comments or her little pithy things I’ve actually commonplaced a number of her things that she has said about him as just general good reminders for just focusing on whether or not they can chant their little Latin or whatever and we’re kind of missing the point. It’s been a fun little part. I mean, it’s an interesting little story and one of the things I always enjoy about Dickens is that even though he tends to introduce like a million characters he often tends to like tie it all together at the end. And I think that’s amazing that he’s able to do that with so many different characters.

It’s sort of like one of those movies where they have all these isolated people and then they all end up at the same party at the end of the movie or something and it’s kind of weird. It reminds me of that. And so anyway, I always enjoy him for that. Like I want to get to the end just to find out how all of these random people are connected because I know they are because it’s Dickens.

Mystie: Right.

Brandy: So it’s been fun.

Mystie: That’s cool. I should re-read it on Looking For That Thing because I know when I listened to it back in the day, you know, that was where I was really down in the dumps about having to actually clean my house because I had three little children and they made messes and I made messes and I really rather resented it. And so what I took away from that book was Esther’s cheerful homemaking evidenced her character.

Brandy: Yes, and I’ve definitely felt convicted by some of that too. I will say that, even now. Maybe I should say especially now.

Pam: So it made her annoying as a character?

Mystie: I don’t think conviction is supposed to be annoying but sometimes it is.

Pam: Just as a character from the outside looking at her, you know.

Mystie: She’s definitely the one that you’re supposed to admire. She’s the standard that everyone else is measures against. And so for me it was seeing how the way that she kept house was evidence of her character. Maybe it was because there was the contrast with the other guy, although I don’t remember that, that what you do and in the manner in which you live you don’t have character apart from that—that’s all in your head. I think at the time I wanted my character to be entirely in my head and I connected from how I lived out my life.

Pam: It’s just so much easier that way.

Mystie: It is. [Laughter] I can sit on the couch and read books and I’m good.

Brandy: There’s another thing about her—because that part of her reminded me of Hester from The Thirteenth Tale because she has that thing where she comes in, she’s like this minister of order, and so, she’s there to be the governess, but she doesn’t start with education. She starts with setting the whole house in order first—that’s in The Thirteenth Tale, and so, it kind of reminded me of that a little bit except that Esther is dealing with basically teenagers and young twenties, she’s not dealing with small children. But anyway, the other thing about her is that part way through the book she gets what I can only conclude is smallpox because it’s like this disfiguring disease and so she loses her beauty, like her facial beauty disappears.

So she goes through a period of time where she mourns it and then she makes a conscious choice not to let it get her down and to keep living and to keep ministering, to keep living out her calling, basically. Anyway, it’s just been so interesting to read that. I mean a lot of us lose our beauty slowly over time, like we don’t end up are wrinkled 85 year old selves right away, but for her it was like she just lost it in a period of six weeks. And so, the way that she handles that I was actually very impressed by Dickens that he could even begin to imagine what that might be like for a young woman because she’s not married and she had some small hope of being married and then having to get up her courage to see even the people she loves again, like what will it be like for them to see her for the first time? That’s been an interesting little sub-theme as well. So, it’s good. I like it. It’s been a good read.

[00:17:13] Dorothy Sayers Essay: The Lost Tools of Learning

Brandy: So we’ll move on to today’s topical discussion about Dorothy Sayers’ essay, Lost Tools of Learning. I designed this to make you two be nice.

Mystie: So is this so you’ll let us into your book club?

Brandy: Yeah, exactly. This is your chance to redeem yourselves.

Mystie: I was hoping like to be uninvited from Brandy’s book clubs for, like, what would be the third time this month?

Brandy: It’s becoming a meaningless endeavor. She doesn’t get it.

Mystie: You’re the one that sent the recording link.

Brandy: Okay, good point. So, my theory about this is that Dorothy Sayers is (and by the way, I have met so many people who use like Dorothy Sayers’ way of organizing education or the Trivium or whatever without ever actually having read the essay at all), but even then I think her view of the Trivium was what ended up being revolutionary about the essay, which I think was originally a speech actually, if I remember right.

Mystie: Yes.

Brandy: But because of that, I think she actually says a lot of good random things along the whole way and they get totally overshadowed and nobody ever remembers them because of this other thing that she did that caught on and so I thought it would be fun for us to just do book club style—we’ll just go around and each share the things that we like that she said that didn’t have necessarily anything to do with her view of the Trivium or those particular subjects that are not subjects or whatever, so I thought it’d be fun, and then I’ll give you an opportunity to be mean at some time in the future. How’s that? Just kidding; I don’t really think you’re mean; I just like to give you a hard time.

Pam: I was beginning to feel unappreciated here. [Laughter] It’s like everybody who doesn’t agree with me is mean.

Brandy: I want to say it really is just picking on Mystie.

Pam: Opposed to the INTJ view on things which is everybody who doesn’t agree with me is stupid. I am not getting any brownie points with anybody today.

Brandy: So tell me about that popularity contest you won? Alright, so, how should we start this or does anybody want to start? Actually, I’ll start because it just dawned on me I wanted to start this one. So, my first thing that she said that I loved is the very second paragraph. So in mine (I’m actually reading this out of …) You’re laughing at me already I haven’t even said anything.

Pam: No, I kind of like the whole second paragraph!

Brandy: Do you really?

Pam: Yes.

Brandy: See?

Pam: Go ahead.

Brandy: Okay, so I’m reading this out of Teaching the Trivium by the Bluedorns which I bought 12-13 years ago or something, I’ve had it forever, and they included The Lost Tools of Learning at the end of the book in the Appendix. But where she says,

“… it will be pleasant to start with a proposition with which, I feel confident, all teachers will cordially agree; and that is, that they all work much too hard and have far too many things to do.”

And that’s my favorite quote.

Mystie: She has good quotes in here, better quotes than that.

Brandy: She does.

Pam: Well, I just thought she’s so witty.

Brandy: She really is.

Pam: There’s just this kind of smarmy sarcastic kind of satire thingy going on and I just—it’s appealing to me.

Mystie: Dorothy Sayers is probably an INTJ.

Brandy: Oh, is she?

Mystie: Didn’t you just say she’s witty and smart? [Laughter]

Pam: I think Mystie secretly thinks like Charlotte Mason’s an INTJ—all the great people are.

Brandy: Wow.

Mystie: Did they have a great idea and do something with it? There you go.

Mystie: She’s also non-nurturing. So there’s that.

Pam: This is true. Touché. [Laughter]

Dorothy Sayers’ Essay: Lost Tools of Learning Favorite Quotes

Brandy: That’s terrible—we’re going to get those emails about the cackling again. I know it’s a small thing but I was like, yes, I do work too hard and have too many things to do. I probably don’t, but anyway, I felt so justified in that moment.

Pam: I just thought she goes on to talk about, you know, there are proper duties such as distributing milk and supervising meals and taking cloakroom duty and keeping their eyes open for mumps and measles and chickenpox. And so, it was funny.

Brandy: I appreciated it. Actually, her description, I was like, well, you know, I always think of the homeschooling mom is being so different from teachers, but when she has that list, I’m like maybe they do have to do some of the things we have to do: the lice checking. Alright, so who wants to go next? Let’s do another quote.

Pam: Well, I made a note on a few paragraphs in where she’s like,

“Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they used? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them?”

My comment was, well, she’s been on Facebook.


“[We’ve] been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question.”

Brandy: Which politicians have perfected to an art form.

Pam: Yes.

Mystie: Okay. So my favorite bit, I think out of this whole thing, is (on mine, it’s page 3, I just have the free printable version from the ACCS), so it’s a few paragraphs in and she says,

“When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to the university in, let us say, Tudor times and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and Adolescence into the years of physical maturity that is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest to the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to individual or to society.”

Brandy: I’m glad you did that one because that one didn’t make the cut but I that was almost the one I was going to choose.

Pam: That one was excellent and it’s like, “Okay, kids. You can thank Dorothy Sayers for the fact that you now have twice as many chores is what you did this morning when you woke up.” [Laughter] She’s convicted me.

Mystie: No more postponing responsibility!

Brandy: That’s right.

Pam: Well, it does really make you think, am I having them do enough? And gosh, going back to personality, the problem with the INTJ—I don’t think Mystie struggles with it as much as I do or she doesn’t seem to anyway—it’s like just let me do it myself, you know, but there is that conviction there, that oh man, I really should … it’s harder to me to have them do it, but it’s better for them for them to be responsible.

Brandy: Right.

Pam: And so this is a place where I definitely struggle. It’s like, it’s just so much easier when I do it myself.

Brandy: Well, it’s just like in those really, really early, like the toddler years when you’re doing the habit training stuff, we don’t see the fruit of that or we don’t get paid any dividends from that until way later. And so you’re putting in all the work, you’re not really seeing any of the benefit. It’s just a big hassle. But then, when you meet someone, with the truly like chaotic, the house is full of bad habits, there aren’t really any good habits, you realize, oh! all of that investment early on, even if it was really simple things, is so worth it, but it doesn’t necessarily feel worth it when you’re really tired and you could fold the laundry twice as fast if no one was helping you because  helping is like the opposite of helping when they’re little.

Mystie:  I thought it was interesting how she just, in that paragraph, it wasn’t just that she identified the problem but wrapped up in her identification of the problem, she pinpoints the root of the problem. It’s not just the prolongation of adolescence that’s happening because of postponed responsibility.

Brandy: Yeah, for sure. Well, it was interesting she connected it to

“artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood”

 and I thought that was interesting. As you’re adding responsibility, actually asking them to function in their education more like adults, and of course, there’s a transition and stuff, but the idea that they would be capable of handling—I don’t know how to put it—like grown-up material or whatever, that’s an interesting [inaudible] to me.

Mystie: Well, I think that’s what this is really all about is having students who think, period. And that’s what’s being artificially postponed is even giving them school work that requires them to think and that’s really what this all is about is how do we have an education where the students are actually the ones doing the thinking and how do we require thinking of them?

Brandy: Yeah

Pam: Didn’t she say later something about sending them off, we would be horrified about sending them off to war but we’re not horrified to send them out like not being able to think or something like that? So this is on about page four in mine (and I think I’ve got one similar to Mystie’s), Dorothy Sayers’ essay said (oh, and this was one of my favorite parts anyway),

“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.”

Okay? I just love that right there. And then,

“By the invention of 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 all for blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being masters of them in their intellects.”

Then she said,

“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…”

And then she goes on and on and on. So that right there.


“We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money…”

Pam: Well, just the idea of,

“By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word.”

Brandy: Yes.

Dorothy Sayers: Teaching the tools of reading and thinking – both

Pam: I mean, it’s almost like it’s an incomplete education. You’re doing a person a bigger disservice teaching them to read if you don’t then teach them how to think after it.

Brandy: Well, and how many people have you heard in homeschooling circles say, “Well, I taught them to read so that they could teach themselves.”

Mystie: Yeah, I have. Once they can read, check. Everything else is of [inaudible].

Brandy: Well, and I felt that way a little bit, like whoa, everybody’s literate. All right, high five! But she’s right. There’s more work to be done because how to read as in, like, decoding phonics isn’t the same thing as how to read as in, how to gain wisdom from what you’re reading.

Pam: Well, and not even that, it’s not even just like maybe they’ll learn to read and comprehend, but if you haven’t armed them with the power of thought, like how to think through something it doesn’t matter if they can read and understand something, they’re just going to flap in the wind. This is like, oh, and I think you talked about this sometimes, Brandy, just because you read something doesn’t mean you have to agree with it.

Brandy: Amen.

Pam: You can read something without agreeing with it. And actually, it’s probably good to read a bunch of things you don’t agree with and be able to come up with arguments why you don’t agree with them, and it’s a good skill to teach our kids too, but we get people who are so afraid to read anything that they might not agree with, and I think it’s because they don’t feel confident in standing up for what they stand for. They’re afraid that if I read something I don’t agree with I might, you know slide into the abyss of whatever.

Brandy: The abyss of whatever. A little comic strip coming on! The imagery did remind me of Charlotte Mason because she has a place where she talks about soldiers coming back from war and she talks about how we’re so horrified by the sight of like the maimed arm, or the guy that’s lost an eyeball, or whatever, like we’re so upset by that—you think about that now even with Vietnam Vets and they’re missing their limbs or something, and were like, oh my gosh, that’s so awful, but we can’t see the students that go out into the world that are missing, basically, what Sayers is talking about—they have no vital ideas, they don’t have the ability to think, and we’re sending them equally maimed. It’s just in a way that you can’t see. That was always a very vivid visual image for me in her work.

Dorothy Sayers on language arts

Mystie: Oh, plus the section where she’s still bemoaning the lack of logical thinking in the mainstream she quotes from the Literary Times Supplement about a certain Frenchman. This is the quote,

“Pointed out that a certain species can only face the horrors of life and death in association.”

Then Dorothy Sayers says,

“I do not know what the Frenchman actually did say: what the Englishmen says he said is patently meaningless.”

Then she goes on to kind of dissect a little bit about why the sentence actually doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t mean anything, which I sympathize with us a someone who grades papers. [Laughter] You have put words together, and I know you think you have communicated something …

Pam: But it does not mean what you think it means.

Mystie: Yes.

Brandy: Or anything at all.

Mystie: But then she says,

“The argument, in effect, assumes what it sets out to prove—a fact which would become immediately apparent if it were presented in a formal syllogism. This is only a small and haphazard example of a vice which pervades whole books—particularly books written by men of science on metaphysical subjects.”

I think that’s even more true today because really, if you look at what’s out there, it is only “men of science” and even not exactly but men pretending to be of science…

Brandy: Oh, it’s ridiculous sometimes what is said.

Mystie: … who are writing on difficult subjects. And then it’s just accepted because it’s science and except it’s not right.

Brandy: It’s science, but you have to say it while holding up your hands and making little quote marks. [Laughter]

Mystie: So that’s what I think her essay here is really all about is for ourselves, and also passing on through education, how to read and how to think and how to not make those mistakes ourselves. This is what we want to be avoiding because this is what’s passing for language and even education today.

Brandy: Right.

Mystie: And it isn’t. It isn’t education.

Brandy: I’ve been following some of the dumb things that are said by that new, from New York, that Ocasio-Cortez lady, the Socialist, and it’s so dumb that it’s hard for me to believe that she has the following that she has because it doesn’t make any sense, but I think we’ve reached a point where people just can’t think.

Mystie: I’m reading—I’m still reading slowly—Francis Schaeffer’s, How Then Shall We Live? I always get the order mixed up on that title [How Should We Then Live?], but it’s a history of thought and he’s explaining how we got to the modern era. This is in the 80’s and he’s writing it but he points back to the end of the enlightenment in the early modern period where reason and faith split and are no longer, you can no longer reason about matters of faith. He said so the basic worldview in the west today is that you derive meaning and significance in the non-rational realm? Rationality and meaning are separated. There’s two different planes.

Brandy: Interesting.

Mystie: Truth doesn’t touch meaning and significance so you create that yourself. So he puts Kierkegaard and others in that around that time period, so I see that here and with what you’re saying about what’s in the news or what people are following and liking it’s like but that doesn’t actually make any sense but we’ve gotten to this point in society where there is no truth. Like you have to have logic, hopefully, in science, but that doesn’t actually touch personal reality which is clear in gender issues or whatever, you know? Seriously, we’ve gotten to a point where rationality doesn’t matter.

Brandy: Oh, yes.

Mystie: And so I think what Dorothy Sayers is going for in this essay when she talks about going back to the Middle Ages she’s talking about going back to some of the ways of thinking that are pre-enlightenment.

Dorothy Sayers’ anthropology

Brandy: Okay. I’m going to read that quote because that was my next one. So it was,

“If we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

I loved that because I’ve always felt like James K. A. Smith tells us that our education starts with our anthropology, really, and I’ve always felt like one thing that’s definitely been true of Scholé Sisters is that our anthropology has more in common with the Middle Ages than it does with what has happened since then. With that said, so disappointed, because I was listening to a recording of the classical homeschool with Ashley saying we can’t return to the Middle Ages, but it was interesting her perspective on this, and she was kind of talking more about how strong the moral imagination was in the Middle Ages, but she was talking about how easy it is to order your affections in a situation where you are constantly facing death.

Like, they didn’t have modern medical care and so they were living with death in a way that we aren’t, because we can prolong our lives in ways that they couldn’t, so that living so close to the earth and to pain and to death (because they don’t have pain killers really), you know, all that kind of stuff, she was talking about forming that was, and about how it’s hard to get back there because our whole life’s are focused around avoiding pain and avoiding trouble, which isn’t exactly what Dorothy Sayers is talking about, but I was like, “No! Dorothy Sayers said that we had to go back there. What do you mean we can’t get there?”

Mystie: I think she means not just that we should try to recreate the Middle Ages, but we can look to them as a model for how to think.

Brandy: For sure. And I think Ashley would say that too.

Mystie: Yeah.

Brandy: Yeah, for sure.

Pam: That makes me think of the quote in Beauty in the Word where Caldecott says, “Plato’s critique of writing calls into question the whole myth of progress that shapes our view of human history.” We have this, he calls it a myth of progress. This idea that somehow we’re better off than what we were before. That things are constantly getting better and things are constantly progressing and as far as pain killers go I would agree but are we losing something?

Brandy: I’ve got to tell you. I saw this meme thing and it started with the Egyptian language and how it’s like all pictures and then it goes forward, and so we get to Shakespeare and all this stuff and then we’re like back on Facebook with emojis. It was like, yep! It was more like a bell curve than it was progress.

[00:40:16] The Grammar Stage in Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning

Pam: Okay, I want to go next, and I want to pull out one of the things because I think I’m the first one to have ventured actually into the Trivium as Sayers lays it out, because if you will note everything we’ve talked about so far has been pre-trivial discussion, trivial discussion. [Laughter] That’s a Freudian slip, sorry! [Laughter] Okay, so she’s talking about the grammar stage and she said,

“In English, verse and prose can be learned by heart, and the pupils memory should be stored with stories of every kind—classical myth, European Legend and so forth.”

It says,

“The stories can be enjoyed and remembered in English and related to their origin at a subsequent stage. Recitation allowed should be practiced—individually or in chorus; for we must not forget that we are laying the groundwork for Disputation and Rhetoric.”

But it’s verse and prose and stories of every kind, and when you look neoclassical models of education that part’s missing in a lot of times. But she had it here and emphasized it here.

Brandy: I drew a heart next to that quote. And she’s talking about age ten here, not kindergarten.

Pam: Yes, that’s true.

Brandy: And that I had missed until re-reading right now.

Mystie: Well, she doesn’t even get to us to say ages until the very end and then I noted that too. Like, oh really? We’re not starting until nine here.

Brandy: So that’s interesting too.

Pam: So,

“Grammar from about nine to eleven, and Dialectic from twelve to fourteen; in his last two school years would then be devoted to Rhetoric.”

Just to read the quote.

Mystie: So then he’s done at sixteen.

Brandy: Ready to go to college. That’s what they were doing in the Middle Ages. The problem is with what colleges are like now. You can’t just send your sixteen year old to college.

Mystie: I will, but it’ll just be a community college.

Brandy: I meant like … because they were sending them to a Residential College.

Mystie: Oh, well what? John Quincy Adams was sent as an Ambassador’s Assistant across the world, at twelve.

Pam: That goes back to that whole thing we were talking about earlier.

Brandy: It goes either way because when you look at John Adams’ kids he also has the kid who did not thrive being sent to boarding school that young and ended up dying an alcoholic and penniless and not taking care of his family and all that kind of stuff and when you read some of what Abigail Adams says, she traces that directly back to him just not having enough parental interaction really. So I mean, there’s both sides of it, but the difference though John Quincy Adams, that happened at twelve, but he was like living intimately with his father before that versus the other ones were kind of left in the United States, but they were younger.

Mystie: Dad was gone.

Brandy: So, the older ones off with Dad but the others never really got to live with him, I don’t think, that much. It’s just always an interesting thing because I heard someone talk one time about how the failure of (I shouldn’t say failure) but the decline in English culture could be traced directly to their use of boarding schools because that is where so much child abuse happened. So they’re sending these really young children thinking that they’re trustworthy but then there’s a reason why Dickens is writing what he’s writing because what was actually happening. We even see that today.

So you’ve got people like Milo Yiannopoulos basically justifying the sexual abuse that happened in his boarding school when he was a child—that that’s just part of boarding school culture. I think that tells us a lot actually. Anyway, I’m not a fan of boarding school.

Mystie: No.

Pam: No.

Brandy: Even though I am a fan of responsibility.

Mystie: So how about the parents taking responsibility first?

Brandy: You read enough older novels and you get the sense that sometimes boarding school was just a way of passing a responsibility entirely off to someone else which is different from saying I’m going to delegate part of my responsibility to someone that I find truly worthy.

Pam: It just made me think of something else I read today and I don’t know that it was in Sayers, but it was in something in this stack of books, talking about how parents are expecting the schools to do what they used to do and just what you said made me think of that.

Read aloud to practice reading skills

Mystie: It’s funny, I read that part that Pam read that the recitation aloud part while I was at a speech tournament doing a lot of …

Brandy: Oh wow!

Mystie: … judging of speeches and actually put on several people’s ballots for feedback. “You need to practice reading out loud.” They’d clearly practiced their memorized speech but then I was also judging some debate where their reading sources or apologetics, where they’re able to bring sources in, whenever they paused to read their source it kind of sounded like they never practiced that part or even just the way they said the words. It’s like what you said (the intonation or whatever) I couldn’t understand how those words went together. And I think that you don’t either. [Laughter] I think that we forget. I mean it’s so basic but it’s so beneficial to have kids read aloud.

Pam: Yeah.

Brandy: I forget. I mean I always have this like, ‘Oh now we’re going to do it more,’ and we do it more for a while and then I get back into the habit of me doing it because I like to do it.

Mystie: There’s your problem. I’m always looking to pass the buck. “Here, you do the chores.” “You do the reading.” Awesome. I’ll sit here.

Pam: INTJ’s are master delegators.

Mystie: As long as it’s something we don’t want to do ourselves.

Pam: Once everybody gets old enough to do a decent job.

Mystie: Like, “Well, I wasn’t going to vacuum anyway, so if you do it’s all the better.”

Pam: Yeah, there —not that much better.

Mystie: So in her essay, Dorothy Sayers draws out some of the subjects then and things that go with it. You know, there’s history and she has dates and personalities which I think means that you’re reading stories and not just dates …

Brandy: I underlined that too.


“A set of dates to which one can peg all later historical knowledge…”

“And it does not greatly matter which dates.”

Brandy: That made me happy.

Mystie: I think this is what she’s getting is really the same idea as what Charlotte Mason gets at with the Book of Centuries or the Century Chart where you want to have a picture of the flow of history. And I think that it’s clear that she does mean a picture of the flow of history and not just a string of memorized facts because she says,

“… provided they are accompanied by pictures of costume, architecture, and “everyday things,” so that the mere mention of a date calls up a strong visual presentation of the whole period.”

So it is a fact and imagination tied together, working together. Just not talking about a grad-grind kind of “just give me the dates” or “just give me the facts.”

Brandy: That was another thing I hadn’t noticed before.

Pam: Was the picture thing?

Brandy: Yeah, the visual aspect of it.

Pam: And she goes on, she talks about the visual presentation in geography too and then in science. So it’s in geography she says,

“the visual presentment of customs, costumes, flora and fauna…”

And so that is a very visual thing and then she says,

“… and I believe myself that the discredited and old-fashioned memorizing of a few capital cities, rivers, mountain ranges, etc., does no harm.”

I happen to agree with her there.

Brandy: But that’s interesting, though, that people who read her (just by observation I could be totally wrong) but have always seemed to me when they’ve designed curricula that that became the most important thing when she says, “it does no harm,” like it’s an afterthought. That’s that’s just interesting to me.

Dorothy Sayers recommends nature study

Pam: And she follows it through too with science. If you look at she talks about,

“–the identifying and naming of specimens … the kind of thing that used to be called “natural history … to know the names and properties of things … is a satisfaction in itself [to be able to recognize] devils coach-horse … to pick out the constellations.”

I mean, this sounds an awful lot like nature study to me, folks.

Brandy: Yep, it sure does.

Mystie: It’s not just knowing the names because you’ve memorized names, it’s recognizing the thing and knowing the name of the thing which Charlotte Mason talks about.

Brandy: That part sounded very Charlotte Mason to me too. Well, can I share my last quote? It’s kind of something we’ve already talked about but I’m going to share it anyway, because I don’t think we’ve read this exact one. She says,

“Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: 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; mediæval 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.”

The thing really that stood out to me was just this idea of leaving any sort of method of teaching to be picked up as he goes along. I was just thinking about how, not that particular thing, but just about how I’ve recently realized that I was expecting my children to pick up some things that they didn’t, so I’ve had to like backtrack a little bit and teach them a few things directly that I had not taught directly because I took it for granted that they would just pick it up out of the atmosphere of our home.

While I do think something like thinking, discussing, being articulate, can to some extent be picked up if you have a family that has good conversations, one of the things I was thinking about in reading that particular quote was just the idea of being deliberate.

If I think there’s something important, whatever it is, for them to graduate with, I should probably make sure that I’m being deliberate. Now, I don’t think that necessarily means I need to directly teach everything but that I’m watching carefully over that thing and making sure that it does develop. So like one example was my Christmas Manners curriculum came because I realized, with horror, that I was expecting my children to just pick up manners and it turned out they didn’t have any, so I made this Manners curriculum, but it was because I just thought you know, my husband and I model good manners, can’t you just like get with the program? That didn’t happen. So anyway, I was thinking kind of about this one more generally of just how many things we leave to chance and then we’re disappointed by later because it’s not there.

Dorothy Sayers v. Charlotte Mason

Pam: I’m thinking about what you’re saying, and I don’t know, I still contend that so often–and this is what’s fabulous about Charlotte Mason and the whole Charlotte Mason movement, and everything like that—is people are really thinking about how kids learn. And I said people are thinking about how kids learn, but honestly, Charlotte Mason is not like how children learn so much as how people learn. So you’re always thinking about how do people learn.

I think that’s something that’s missing in so many other methods of education it’s like just tell me what to do and we’ll do it. Not, “Well, let’s think about what practices constitute learning that you can do for the rest of your life and teach you how to do them.” You know? So that’s what Sayers is talking about here. I think it gets lost in the piece that people are able to pull out and say, “Ooh, this is what we’re supposed to be doing. Now let me just follow the formula.”

Brandy: Absolutely.

Pam: I wonder how Sayers would look upon what’s been created in her name.

Brandy: Well, I’m sure she’d be shocked because she was just making a funny speech. I mean honestly. Not that she didn’t put thought into it, of course she did, but I don’t think she was trying to set out to develop some sort of educational philosophy. I think she was more playing a mind game, you know, experimenting. What does she say in the quote that I just read? Dorothy Sayers talks about whatever is at hand you doodle on it with the use of the tool, and I say that’s what she’s doing. Right?

Mystie: Yeah, I think so.

Brandy: She picked up the Trivium and doodled with it. She probably would be amazed that she became significant for this out of all of the work that she did because I think this is probably what she’s most well-known for.

Pam: Certainly within homeschooling circles.

Mystie: It started a movement. I mean …

Brandy: It did.

Mystie: Not just in homeschooling but the classical school movement as well.

Brandy: Well, I do feel like even those of us who take some sort of level of issue with her view of the Trivium, still when we talk about, as Christians, giving honor where honor is due I feel like we have her to thank for so much in our culture just that Christians started trying to think about education. For some reason God used her in this country to start people thinking again about education.

Mystie: Well, I think because it is so succinct and witty and practical, whereas, a lot of the stuff that’s about classical education that’s out there you read it and you think well, that’s wonderful and amazing and I could never do that. And you read this and you think, ‘Yeah, we could give that a shot.’

Pam: It’s still just going back and reading it again, and it’s been a number of years since I had read it, going back and reading it again it’s like, “Oh, look at these great bits that—why are these bits not focused on?” What is it about these that didn’t make the cut in some of what you see out there?

Brandy: I think this is why, if we want to tease out a general lesson from this, I think this is why it’s important if we’re going to say we’re influenced by a specific thinker to read at least some of that person’s actual work because I think it’s possible that’s what’s happened is the people who started the classical school movement read it, and I do think some school administrators still read this, but I think as time went on people were being exposed to a more and more derivative version of this, and the thing with derivatives is that you start dropping details and no one’s really sure whether they were important or not because no one even knows what they are anymore.

Mystie: And I think it also shows the importance of re-reading not just read, but …

Brandy: True.

Mystie: … you can come to something and you pull something out of it and you put it into practice, and that’s good, but to grow and mature in our application we need to keep coming back to our sources, and not just read them once and then go do it, but to always be drawing on them and always going back to it and deepening our understanding because we will have missed something. Anytime anyone is reading anything …

Brandy: Absolutely.

Mystie: … and trying to put it into practice we need to be re readers and not just read something and go out and do it or even expect to do it from what one reading but to recognize that it’s going to take time and going back through something because you’ll draw something different out every time.

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