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John Dewey is such a big name in the educational world that it can seem like there is no way to push back against his work. But Dorothy Sayers offers a way for the Liberal Arts not only to push back on Dewey but also to steal his thunder…

As we look back at the last century, it can seem that the Liberal Arts model deteriorated through factors like neglect, laziness, or mission creep. But the reality was strikingly different. This older model of education was not misplaced; it suffered a planned and deliberate attack. The leading educators of the last century turned on the Liberal Arts program and tried to gut it. The central voice in this attack was John Dewey, but other educators, like the Developmentalists, joined him in that work. Their primary criticism was that the older Liberal Arts model could not accommodate new research done in child development. Into the middle of this pedagogical revolution, Dorothy Sayers stepped up in 1947 and defended the Liberal Arts program in her work The Lost Tools of Learning. In her defense of the liberal arts, Sayers both acknowledged the factor of childhood development and offered a way for Classical education to deal with these criticisms. In this way, Sayers did not merely defend the Liberal Arts program but also, and more importantly, offered a way for Classical education to disarm Dewey’s project.

In the early twentieth century, many students found the conditions at school to be slave-like. In 1913, Helen M. Todd, a factory inspector in Chicago, asked five hundred children about their experience in school and in the factory. She proposed a scenario in which their families were well off and did not need the kids to work: Given that scenario, would the children want to work in a factory or go to school? Four hundred of the kids said that “they preferred factory labor to the monotony, humiliation, and even sheer cruelty that they experienced in school.”[i] These children feared the situation in the schools more than the factories. One American humorist satirized the educational philosophy of the day like this: “It makes no difference what you teach a boy so long as he doesn’t like it.”[ii] While this comment is a parody, schools of that day did emphasize rigorous schoolwork, subscribing to an educational philosophy popular at the time called the Mental Disciplinarian theory.

The Mental Disciplinarian theory rested on the claim that the mind is a muscle that gains strength and endurance through exercise in various subjects. This position argued that subjects, like the classical languages in the Liberal Arts program, build a student’s mental strength so that he is a better thinker in other subjects and tasks. This theory suggested that if a student was given enough work and practice, he could grow to match the demands of the school work. This theory urged the student to be conformed to the program rather than the program to be conformed to the student. Given this model, if a student could not learn a lesson, then it was generally considered a weakness in the student rather than in the curriculum.

In 1890, William James conducted tests that focused on the area of memory and the question of whether more memory work helped to improve one’s memory. In his report, James found that the faculty of memory was not improved by more memorizing.[iii] In 1901, Edward L. Thorndike conducted an experiment in which students were taught a variety of mental operations, like estimating the area of a rectangle, until the student had a high degree of proficiency in that single task. Then he gave the student a similar task like finding the area of a smaller rectangle. Thorndike then examined how much skill could be transferred from the first task to the second one. He concluded: “Improvement in any single mental function need not improve the ability in functions commonly called by the same name.”[iv] This research cast major doubt on the Mental Disciplinarian theory, primarily questioning the value of studying the classical languages, since the skills and abilities learned in those classes could not be transferred to other work or tasks.

A key group of educators, called the Developmentalists, also carried out research in the area of child development. One of these was G. Stanley Hall who wrote a work in 1883 called The Contents of the Child’s Mind,in which he argued against the idea that all students should be taught the same material and with the same method. In his investigation of the children of Boston, he concluded that “[the child] does not want a standardized, overpeptonized mental diet. It palls on his appetite.”[v] Hall argued that the child’s appetites and interests must be accommodated in the formation of the curriculum. Later in 1904, Hall wrote about his appreciation for a popular theory of child development called the Culture-Epoch theory, which “posited the notion that the child recapitulates in his or her individual development the stages that the whole human race traversed throughout the course of history.”[vi] This theory suggested that a child grew up through various stages that roughly followed the course of human history. During the “savage” stage of development, the child was interested in topics and material that pertained to that historical epoch, such as ancient mythology and fables. This theory, although considered absurd now, illustrates how important the study of child development was in educational models at that time.

While John Dewey was not part of this Developmentalist group, he shared many of the same concerns in his educational theories. In his work, Democracy and Education from 1916, Dewey argues that a student’s interest in the material is paramount. A student will learn most when he is most interested. Dewey writes, “The remedy is not in finding fault with the doctrine of interest, any more than it is to search for some pleasant bait that may be hitched to the alien material. It is to discover objects and modes of action, which are connected with present powers.”[vii] The key then is for the teacher to secure the interest that is present in the child and use that natural desire to build the lesson. In this way, the curriculum is not forcing the child against his will to learn; rather the program is drawing the child into something which the child naturally wants.

Dewey also felt the order of the curriculum was of key importance. For a curriculum to harness the natural interests and abilities of the student, it must be designed to progress in such a way that it adapts to the changing interests of the child as he grows up. In Dewey’s last book, Experience and Education (1938) he writes: “It is a ground for legitimate criticism, when the ongoing movement of progressive education fails to recognize that the problem of selection and organization of subject-matter for study and learning is fundamental.”[viii] A key focus of reform for Dewey is to understand how a child changes over the years so that subjects of study can be organized to match the child’s developing interests.

Dewey also focused on creating a program that did not treat education as merely preparation for adult life, but actually had lessons that applied to the student’s life directly. In his mind, if education is only preparing children for a life to come that means children “are looked upon as candidates; they are placed on the waiting list.”[ix] This, in turn, removes any incentive for the child to study because the lesson doesn’t really apply to the child right now. Dewey explains that this leads to discipline issues because the child’s natural interest in the lesson is destroyed: “The future having no stimulating and directing power when severed from the possibilities of the present, something must be hitched on to it to make it work. Promises of rewards and threats of pain are employed.”[x] Threats and rewards were often employed in educational models like the Mental Disciplinarian theory. Instead, Dewey emphasizes the importance of matching the curriculum to a student’s interest and abilities in order to ensure that the material is immediately applicable to the student’s life. If the child’s development is ignored, then the educational system is working against the abilities of the child and is making the educational process harder than it should be.

This leads to Dorothy Sayers and her work from 1947, The Lost Tools of Learning. While Sayers was not responding directly to Dewey and the Developmentalists, she did incorporate the educational elements they emphasized: student interest and development. In this short work, Sayers describes a program which follows three stages of development in the child and also harnesses the child’s natural interest and abilities at each level. The three stages of development are the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic. She explains that students in the youngest stage, about ages nine to eleven, have the natural desire to learn things by memory. She describes memory work as a pleasure to them. On the other hand, she says that “reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished.” The next stage is the Pert stage which covers ages twelve to fourteen. She says this stage is one in which the student likes to contradict and “catch people out” especially one’s elders. This stage also likes “the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them).” She suggests that students in this stage are interested in reasoning and logic. The last stage is the Poetic stage, which covers ages fifteen to sixteen (and later years). She says this stage “yearns to express itself” and “it is restless and tries to achieve independence.”[xi] This stage is interested in self-image and in presenting one’s self in a persuasive and thoughtful way. Based on the natural desires of the student at each of these three stages, Sayers builds a curriculum that incorporates student development.

It is striking to see that Sayers then looks back at the Medieval world for her program of study: the Trivium. The three subjects of this model are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Sayers maps these three subjects on top of the three stages: Grammar goes with Poll Parrot, Logic goes with Pert, and Rhetoric goes with Poetic. Sayers suggests that Medieval educators were concerned with the very same things that she is. She argues: “What matters is the light it throws upon what the men of the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of the educative process.”[xii] In this way, Sayers is employing this older system in order to address the concerns that educational reformers had about child development.

Sayers, like Dewey, is also interested in creating practical lessons that the student can use immediately. The tools of learning in her program line up with the stages of the student’s growth and development: memory and observation for the Poll Parrot stage, discursive reasoning and critical analysis for the Pert stage, and finally, eloquent and persuasive communication in the Poetic stage. It is important to point out that these tools are practical and match the natural interests of the child at that level, so he can see the immediate application of the tools. In this way, the student is growing up with the program and the program is mapped to match the way he grows.

It is important to point out that the student doesn’t leave the tool behind when he advances to the next stage, but instead he takes it with him into successive stages. This is true of child development in general: a child doesn’t forget how to walk when he learns to run. Walking is a skill that enables the child to run. In a similar way, Sayers builds a program that is applicable to the student at that stage and then also grows with the student as he develops. In this way, the curriculum is both immediately applicable to the student and also useful later when the child has graduated out of the program. Sayers concludes: “For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half of the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command.”[xiii] In this three-step model, Sayers has built a program that both meets the student where he is and then also accompanies him in the years after school.

John Dewey is such a big name in the educational world that it can seem like there is no way to push back against his work, but Dorothy Sayers offers a way for the Liberal Arts not only to push back on Dewey but also to steal his thunder. Sayers takes much of Dewey’s power away because she offers a program that deals honestly with the reality of child development. In this way, we see that Sayers does not merely offer an education program based on the Trivium; rather she offers a way for Classical educators to answer many of the trends in the educational world today. This, in turn, suggests why Classical education has experienced such a revival in recent years. The true power of Sayers is that she harnessed the truths of child development and then built them into the older curriculum of the Liberal Arts. This integration of method and material is a powerful recipe that has yet to be surpassed by other educational theories.

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[i] Kliebard, Herbert M., The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1995, 6.

[ii] Quoted in Dewey, Democracy and Education, 134.

[iii] Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 91.

[iv] Quoted in Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 92.

[v] Quoted in Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 12.

[vi] Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 38.

[vii] Dewey, Democracy and Education, 127.

[viii] Quoted in Kliebard, 203.

[ix] Dewey, Democracy and Education, 54.

[x] Dewey, Democracy and Education, 55.

[xi] Sayers, Dorothy, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Appendix A in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Douglas Wilson, 154.

[xii] Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Appendix A in Wilson Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, 149.

[xiii] Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Appendix A in Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, 162.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Dewey definitely contributed to making education less human and unfortunately, we are starting to reap some of what he sowed.

  2. This is a challenging subject. I’m delighted to encounter it,and I’d like to put in my two cents worth, but even in these days of inflation, I’m short of the cash.

  3. Very interesting but I am not sure that you’ve shown Sayers ” pushing back” at Dewey or that I see anything in Dewey that dismantles the liberal arts. Rather, she suggests the ways in which they can work in harmony. I’d argue that his theories of development were intended to find ways to help children receive those arts with lasting joy and benefit.

  4. John Dewey’s philosophy has been a disaster in American education. The basic problem is that eh is so focused on experience that he (or at least his disciples) appears to forget that facts are important. Without facts, the experience cannot be evaluated by the student – he ends up with experience, but without knowledge.

  5. When I attended the UVA Curry School of Education they were enamored with Dewey. I like Sayers’s essay, but I think Mortimer Adler added much more to the attempted revival of classical education in this country.

  6. I don’t have the capital to hold my own in this forum, but what worked for St. Augustine also seems to work well for those unhappy but highly functional Asians — brute coercion by their teachers. Asians that spend too much time in American public schools develop into, sadly, the same slothful creatures as our spoiled children do. Yet, even though the Asians struggle with language, they do well in mathematics simply because they have the fundamentals down pat. I have taught too many years where one third of every high school freshman math class has students who don’t even know how to do basic arithmetic. But pass them on to high school anyway. When I discuss my ideas with public teachers they tell me that my way can’t be done anymore because leverage (expulsion) over students is unacceptable in a democracy.

    But, we aren’t a democracy. So even the teachers begin with the wrong premise. As you can tell, I am one frustrated teacher.

    FWIW, I want to know more about Sayers and this Trivium idea. I like theories that comport with reality.

    Excellent article on display here.

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