I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been doubly distracted this week. My book about evangelical colleges is entering its final stages and I’ve been poring over copy-edits. Plus, we got to spend time with some long-lost family members. In the meantime, the interwebs kept spitting out stories. Here are some we might have missed, with extra history added in so you can follow along at home…

More trouble at troubled Bryan College. Long-time faculty member fired, anti-administration petition makes the rounds.

What’s wrong with Frances FitzGerald’s new book? Neil Young says it misses the real point of being evangelical.Bart reading bible

Peter Greene: Don’t believe the talk about a “teacher shortage.”

Is evangelical support for Trump a good thing for progressivism? John Fea wonders if Trumpist evangelicals are making their “Pickett’s Charge.”

From the archives: What did progressives think of William Jennings Bryan in 1945?

  • A taste: “The man who had never been a bigot associated himself with the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. The man who had been the apostle of democratic freedom and of public education had become an advocate of governmental restrictions on the freedom of learning. . . . And it’s high time some serious study was given to the social applications of Bryanism rather than of Darwinism.”

Teaching religion in Chicago’s public schools. Is the answer “religious literacy?” I’m still skeptical.

What’s the latest scheme for predatory faux-profit colleges? Fake Latin names.

From the archives: Glenn Branch gets his hands on a rare 1925 anti-evolution pamphlet.

What’s so “classical” about Classical Schools? At National Review, John Miller gives a short history and endorsement.


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

Progressive Teaching for Christian Schools? The Classical Christian Approach

–Thanks to P.H.

We’ve been learning a lot lately at ILYBYGTH about the Classical Christian Education movement. Recently on First Things we read a thoughtful analysis of the state of the movement today.  Brian Douglas warns of some growing pains for the movement.  He highlights the need for schools in this tradition to keep their eyes focused on the big educational picture.

But first, a few words on the background of the movement: The recent Classical Christian Education movement can date its origin to a 1991 book by Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.  Wilson, a Reformed pastor, Christian educator and school founder from Moscow, Idaho, popularized the classical education formula of Christian and crime writer Dorothy Sayers.

The Association of Classical & Christian Schools now claims 229 schools.  The movement is affiliated with two colleges, New Saint Andrews and New College Franklin.

Such a booming educational movement quickly runs into some definitional problems, as Douglas notes in his essay.  Douglas warns of “five temptations” for the growing movement: mistaking the trappings of success for true success; focusing on uniforms, discipline, and Latin instead of the broader Christian mission; assuming that success relies on the schools rather than on God; failing to integrate the Bible into a classical curriculum; and assuming that school will be the most decisive influence on every student.

For those of us outside the movement, the most intriguing parts of Douglas’ essay concern the growing middle ground between “progressive” and “traditional” education.

As we have noted here before, some leading “progressive” educational thinkers have long advocated a more traditional, authoritarian classroom style.

Similarly, conservative Christian educators affiliated with Walter Fremont’s School of Education at Bob Jones University have long argued for a more “progressive” pedagogy.

Douglas articulates a vision for this energetic new educational movement that seems to combine the “progressive” emphasis on child-centered education with the “traditional” emphasis on evangelical Christian theology, student discipline, and a Trivium-based, great-books curriculum.

Indeed, if words such as “Christian” and “Bible” were replaced, Douglas’ nostrums could certainly find a home in many ferociously “progressive” education schools.

For instance, Douglas wants an education that “tends to develop thinkers defined by who they are instead of workers defined by what they do.”  Similarly, Douglas warns of an over-emphasis on classroom discipline: “focusing on order becomes hazardous when it overtakes the joy of experiencing God’s grace.  When this happens, students may learn to jump through the hoops, obey the rules, do the right things, but they do not learn to love God and others. . . . Creating a truly gracious classroom is much harder than creating an orderly classroom.”  To pick just one more well-turned phrase of Douglas’ that could just as easily have come from the progressive camp: “Education cannot be reduced to a formula, even if the formula is a good one.”

Douglas’ essay, and the development of the Classical Christian movement as a whole, suggest a broad middle ground in education.  Make no mistake: Douglas is ferociously Christian.  He does not suggest any watering down of the uniquely Biblical elements of good education.  However, when advocates of Christian education can agree with advocates of “progressive,” “multicultural” education about the most important factors of good schooling, it seems we might have some room with which to work.