What You Need to Know about . . . Dorothy L. Sayers

By Patrick Halbrook

I Love You but You’re Going to Hell is pleased to announce a new series of guest posts.  Inspired loosely by the One Thousand Words series at Front Porch Republic, this series asks experts to describe briefly the most important contributions of the most important conservative educational theorists and activists.   

How did a British detective novelist inspire an evangelical pastor from a small town in Idaho to found one of the fastest growing Christian schooling movements in America decades after her death?

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) is most widely remembered today not for her writings on education (which were rather brief), but for her literary output.  Her Peter Wimsey detective novels continue to be re-printed, and were adapted for television by the BBC in the 1970s.  Her twelve-part radio play about the life of Jesus, “The Man Who Would Be King” (1941-42), was considered by her friend C.S. Lewis to have been one of her finest works, and he enjoyed re-reading the manuscript every year during the week before Easter.  Sayers continues to be praised for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which she spent the final decade of her life after teaching herself Italian.  Her prolific career as a writer and social critic have led her to be called “the most significant female British Christian intellectual of the twentieth century,” and an author who “made a substantial impact on nearly as many fields as G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis.”

But if you were to visit a conference on Christian education and pull aside a parent or teacher to inquire about the distinguished Ms. Sayers, more often than not she would simply be lauded as the author of a brief 1947 essay on education entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Throughout the past few decades, this essay has spread throughout the evangelical Christian community through a peculiar turn of events.  In the mid twentieth century it came to the attention of William F. Buckley, who reprinted it at various times in National Review.  In the pages of Buckley’s magazine, it was read by a pastor of a small church in Moscow, Idaho named Douglas Wilson (Wilson is now known, among other things, for debating Christopher Hitchens and writing an award-winning novel).  In the early 1980s, Wilson began a private Christian school in Moscow in which he implemented Sayers’ ideas; he later popularized them in his 1991 book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Over the following years, hundreds of schools across the country began to form using Wilson’s school as a model.  Sayers’ ideas also appear in the pages of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, an enormously popular book on homeschooling which is now in its third edition.

“The Lost Tools of Learning” presents a rather simple educational paradigm based on the medieval Trivium and the notion that the goal of education is to teach students to think and learn for themselves.  For Sayers, this paradigm was the solution to what she considered to be the rather sorry state of early twentieth-century education.  “Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate,” she asked, “that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?”  She continued,

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 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.

Students were graduating from school unprepared for life, Sayers argued, because “we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”  What was needed in such times was a system of education capable of producing “a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society.”

Sayers found in medieval education two insights which, if applied in the twentieth century, would offer modern man a way out of the mess in which he had found himself.  First, by way of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), medieval education offered a paradigm for stages of learning to think and express oneself.  Second, its emphasis on theology gave all knowledge a coherence and unity without which education could only disintegrate into a collection of irrational, disjointed parts.

Confessing that her views of child development were “neither orthodox nor enlightened,” Sayers maintained that children go through three basic stages of development.  Each of these she associated with a part of the Trivium.  In the elementary years, or “Poll-Parrot” stage, children excel at memorizing new facts.  This corresponds with the “grammar” stage of the Trivium, which consists of learning the basic facts for each subject.  The grammar of language is self-evident, but other subjects have grammar stages as well.  In history, for instance, it consists of memorizing names and dates and events.  The goal of this stage is therefore to get as many facts into children’s heads, whether they understand their significance or not, while memorization is still relatively easy and even fun.

In the “Pert” stage, which corresponds to middle school, children naturally begin mastering the art of talking back and contradicting their elders.  This makes them ideally suited for the “logic” or “dialectic” stage, which would include the study of formal logic, as well as the “logic” of various subjects.  At this point students take what they have learned in the grammar stage and learn to apply critical thinking skills to those facts.  In literature, they debate whether or not a character’s actions were justified; in history, they study the causes and effects of the events they have already learned about.

Finally, students of high school age enter the “Poetic” stage, in which they yearn to express themselves and to achieve real independence of life and thought.  Because during the grammar stage they have been given something to think about, and during the logic stage they have learned how to think clearly, they are finally ready during their high school years to begin the study of “rhetoric.”  The purpose of this stage is to teach students to express their thoughts with clarity and eloquence through writing and speaking.  Students by this point in time have also become competent to take up new subjects to study on their own, needing less and less guidance needed from their teachers.

(It is worth noting that Sayers has come under fire for allegedly misrepresenting the Trivium, whose parts were, during the medieval period, all studied together and never corresponded to stages of child development.  Yet Sayers admitted as much, recognizing that what she was suggesting was a modern application of a traditional paradigm using her own views on psychology.  On another note, it has also been pointed out that Sayers’ paradigm of learning stages parallels Bloom’s taxonomy, which was published about a decade after “The Lost Tools of Learning.”)

In addition to her explanation of the Trivium, Sayers also turned to medieval education for its emphasis on Christian theology.  She wrote,

I shall add it to the curriculum because theology is the mistress-science without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis.  Those who disagree about this will remain content to leave their pupil’s education still full of loose ends.

Theology would provide a coherent worldview which would allow students to understand how each subject fit together.  For Sayers, Christianity was never merely a set of ethical principles and religious rituals, but was at its core a way of making sense of the world.  “To me, Christian dogma seems to offer the only explanation of the universe that is intellectually satisfactory,” she wrote on one occasion.[1]  It was therefore an indispensable part of her educational vision, its neglect being a significant cause of modern education’s impotence.

What would it look for these “tools of learning” to be rediscovered and once again put to use?  Ironically, Sayers never dreamed it would actually happen.  She considered it “in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.”  She would therefore be quite surprised to know that today, over 40,000 students in private Christian schools (not to mention countless homeschooled students) are being taught grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the way that she envisioned.

They may not know much about her detective novels, but multitudes of conservative Christian educators have been profoundly influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers.


For more on Sayers…

About the author: Patrick Halbrook teaches at a classical Christian school near Raleigh, North Carolina.  His research interests include the history of Christian education and the intersection of science and religion, and for his master’s thesis he explored the role of the Scopes trial in American memory.  You can reach Patrick at phalbrook@carychristianschool.org.


[1] Letters, 2:401

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  1. Terry Clayton

     /  October 17, 2013

    Well done Mr. Halbrook. A very well done article on a unique person.

  2. I’d be interested in knwoing the author’s (and others’) thoughts on the claim that “Christianity was never merely a set of ethical principles and religious rituals, but was at its core a way of making sense of the world.”

    It seems to me almost banal to say Christianity never was or has been just those things at its core — but is it really “at its core a way of making sense of the world” — and what does that mean to different people?

    Historically and in practice it can mean a very intellectual, even rationalistic commitment to a premodern metaphysics and/or a certain historiography filtered through various catholic or protestant lenses. It can be much else, but in a lot of American Christian “worldview education” and “classical” approaches it seems to amount to taking some form of the “Discarded Image” of the classical and medieval views of reality and trying to retain or harmonize them with certain modern views.

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