Why Didn’t Christianity Today Mention The Most Important Part?

Remember Dorothy Sayers? A lot of us don’t, but the twentieth-century writer has had enormous influence on twenty-first century evangelicalism. A recent article in Christianity Today about Sayers’ influence, though, mysteriously left out the most important part of Sayers’ legacy for American evangelicalism. Why?sayers

In the Christianity Today article, author Crystal Downing focuses on Sayers’ famous series of BBC plays about Christ. As Downing tells the story,

In 1940, the BBC asked Sayers to write a series of 12 radio plays about Jesus. Taking the commission very seriously, Sayers spent a year rereading the Gospels, studying the original Greek as well as Bible commentaries. . . . Reporters, surprised that Sayers used colloquial rather than King James English, played up the fact that some of Christ’s disciples spoke working-class slang. . . . Due to the nationwide scandal, hundreds of people tuned in to the broadcasts for titillation more than for edification. What they got was the gospel delivered in language that made sense to them. They discovered that their perceptions of Jesus had become as static as stained-glass depictions in their churches. . . . As Sayers recounted to [C.S.] Lewis in 1946, “Thousands of people write to say that they have been ‘brought back to God,’ or had their faith renewed, or returned with eagerness to reading the Bible” due to the broadcasts. Lewis himself was so impressed by the profundity of Sayers’s plays that he read the print version for his Lenten devotions every year.

It’s a well-known story and one that should be remembered. But when it comes to real influence in the world of American evangelical culture, there is a much more important side of Sayers’ that this article simply didn’t mention.

sayers lost tools of learning

Sayers’ REAL lost legacy…

Why not?

It might be simply due to ignorance. As Patrick Halbrook has explained in these pages, not many people know the story of Sayers’ indirect influence on conservative evangelical schooling in the twenty-first century. As Halbrook explained,

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.

Perhaps the general reader might not know about this vital legacy of Dorothy Sayers, but it seems odd that it wouldn’t be mentioned in an article specifically dedicated to revealing Sayers’ oft-forgotten legacy.


A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.


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

“Worker Ants in an Insect Society:” The Case for Christian Education

Can government schools produce anything except totalitarian drones?

The folks at Patheos: The Anxious Bench recently re-ran a consideration of this question by the accomplished historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.  But does this conservative criticism assume too much about America’s public school system?  Are bad schools more like bad haircuts than anything else?

Source: Sodahead

Source: Sodahead

More on haircuts later.  The question of public schools and Christian students has long exercised conservative intellectuals.  I’ve described the history of this perennial concern among American conservatives in general and among conservative evangelical Protestants in particular in a couple of academic articles and in my 1920s book.  As Professor Kidd notes, this question of separate “Christian” schools has long been a central concern among conservative religious thinkers.

Professor Kidd lays out the case: even in his hometown of Waco, “where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith,” public-school values do not pretend to match the values of evangelical Protestantism.  The problem, as Kidd notes, has been trumpeted by conservative Christian intellectuals for generations.  Kidd cites J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen as varied exemplars of this intellectual tradition.

Kidd cites Christopher Dawson’s 1961 accusation that public schools were only fit to produce “worker ants in an insect society.”  The problem, Kidd argues, is not simply the familiar laundry list of evangelical complaints.  It is not simply that public schools teach evolution, or that they discourage prayer, or that they teach a skewed secularized history.  The deeper problem is an utter lack of purpose in public education.

As Kidd puts it,

Public education, and private secular education, is floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

At a fundamental level, Kidd argues, parents must spend more time asking what purpose they hope their children’s education will serve.  For conservative evangelical Protestants, in general, even the most efficient public schools may seem only efficient paths to damnation.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we must ask: Are public schools really so profoundly anti-Christian?  And, perhaps more important, what does any of this have to do with poodle haircuts?

After all, the public schools also take their share of accusations from the left.  Liberal watchdogs such as the Texas Freedom Network blast politicians for using schools as catspaws in a rabid anti-leftist witch huntAmericans United for Separation of Church and State warns of the “Religious Right’s Plan to Force Fundamentalism on Our Public Schools.”  Academic leftists such as Michael Apple accuse twenty-first century public schools of being profoundly dominated by the conservative shibboleths of “Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.”

Is this only a matter of perspective?  Are public schools centrist institutions, forced to muddle down the middle of cultural controversies?  From the left, schools appear dominated by conservatism.  From the right, they look like secularist left-wing indoctrination centers.

Or could this be the oldest public-school question in the book?  That is, could these critics be making the mistake of treating public schools as if they were a single ideological entity, when in fact they are a ten-thousand-member cluster with no discernible goals or guiding ideology?  In other words, if you want to attack the ideology of the public school system, you’ll be able to find convincing and terrifying examples of all sorts of ideas.  With such an incredible diversity of schools and school districts, it is all too easy for commentators to accuse “public schools” in general of problems that may not trouble the majority of real schools.

Now, at long last, let’s consider what schools have to do with haircuts:

Blasting “the ideology of the public schools” in general might be like attacking America’s hairstyles in general.  Of course, there are fashions and historic trends.  And of course, anyone can pull up terrifying examples of how they can go wrong.  But America’s hairstyles, like America’s public schools, have no controlling central intelligence.  Both are the result of thousands, millions, of decisions by individuals on a daily basis.

Of course, parents and pundits of any religious or political persuasion should make the decisions that fit them best.  But when those decisions are pushed as a simple rule about the ideological nature of the public schools in general, we may have veered off into poodle-haircut territory.


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.