The Lost Tools of Learning
Andrew Starkie reflects on confusion and crisis in education
Education for what?
The ongoing parliamentary struggle over ‘top-up fees’ has had the effect of putting education nearer the top of the political agenda. Commentators have argued whether money should be best spent in early years or in higher education. Academics have disputed how many graduates we ought to have. But the assumption that we know what education is for is rarely questioned: a more prosperous economy and a more equal society. Education is being asked to bear the weight of these colossal expectations, and is showing the strain. Meanwhile, the traditional end of education, the growth and formation of a human being, is notable by its absence from discussion of education policy.
Despite this, traditional learning appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance. Jane Hattatt, headmistress of the ‘best value’ school in the latest league tables, recently attacked the ‘tick-box’ mentality of Ofsted. Presiding over an all-girls school with a large ethnic-minority intake, she has instituted Latin classes, and insists on school uniform and compulsory media studies designed to arm her girls against the ravages of spin. More and more canny primary teachers are ignoring the advice of the government’s National Literacy Strategy and are instead teaching children to read using phonics from the first year, ditching the flawed ‘sight-reading’ dogma of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, a young teacher in a Paris suburb with a large immigrant population has defied the ‘child-centred learning’ orthodoxy of the educational establishment. Rachel Boutonnet saw the emperor of progressive educational theory had no clothes on, and braved persecution by clandestinely teaching her little charges phonics and grammar. She then blew the whistle on the failure of progressive education in a best-selling book, Secret Diary of a Teacher. In an interview in The Sunday Times, she castigated teachers who blamed poor educational performance on social conditions. ‘The best thing is to ask a lot of them’, she argued.
The concerns of Ms Hattatt and Mlle Boutonnet curiously echo a plea made nearly half a century ago by that feisty Anglican laywoman, Dorothy L Sayers. In a speech to the University of Oxford in 1947, called The Lost Tools of Learning, she painted a picture, which resonates strongly with contemporary educational concerns:
We dole out lip-service to the importance of education – lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
Sayers argued that the tools of learning were to be found in the medieval classical curriculum, the ‘trivium’: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Instead of teaching ‘subjects’, Sayers insisted, we needed to teach children how to think. At the time she lamented that her scheme would never be put into practice. However, Sayers’s speech has become a sort of icon in recent years amongst a growing number of Christian parents and educationalists. There have been several publications explaining the classical curriculum, and at least one Christian school in the US which has the trivium as the basis of its teaching.
Plans to expand higher education, allow variable fees and increase state control of universities have been opposed from both sides: by Labour rebels because variable fees tarnish education with market economics; by Conservatives because more regulation threatens academic independence, and because having more graduates muddies the distinction between academic education and vocational training.
But so far no side has been brave enough to ask openly what education is for, apart from getting employment qualifications. All universities, no matter how venerable, are being treated as polytechnics: it is supposed that university students are being trained for the benefit of business – and their own financial benefit. This is the justification offered by those who propose a ‘graduate tax’. Usefulness to employers also forms part of the rationale behind the national curriculum and other government initiatives on education, hence the obsession with information technology, despite its limited educational value.
There is of course a distinguished, indeed Christian, tradition of vocational training. The great craft guilds were Christian foundations, and their decline is to be lamented. The mentoring which master gave to apprentice was ideally another variety of Christian formation. Along with the craft of ironmongery (or printing, or making tallow candles, or whatever) was transmitted the example of a Christian life lived.
It is this idea of formation, which has been eroded from both technical and academic education, and its demise is linked intimately to religious concerns. Formation demands an idea of what a human being should be. And the answer to that question is always a theological one. A failure to acknowledge the public relevance of the Christian doctrine of man has left a vacuum at the heart of education. It is a lack that cannot adequately be filled with the secular dogma of ‘citizenship education’.
For classical Christian education, training the mind to think clearly was part of the wider objective of fitting souls for eternity. Classical Christian learning has cast a considerable shadow over even very recent educational practice in this country, but that shadow has now almost entirely faded. Concerned Christian parents are beginning to notice, and if that trend is not reversed soon, it may be that an independent and vigorously Christian education sector is needed to meet the challenge of the hour.
Manipulative language and spin dominate public political discourse: ‘inclusion’; ‘civil society’; ‘in the twenty-first century’; ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Statesmen seem afraid to talk clearly and openly. The wheels of consumption (and hence the fortunes of ‘the economy’) are oiled by advertising which is even more manipulative and more powerful, and to which children are exposed from birth onwards. Unless there is a drastic change in political and social culture, there is little incentive for politicians to put into the hands of the next generation of voters the tools of learning that would allow them to judge and resist the siren calls of deceptive rhetoric. If there is to be a renewal of classical and Christian learning it will have to come from concerned parents and teachers drawing deep from the wells of those traditions and having the confidence to equip a new generation with the tools to reveal manipulative rhetoric for what it is. Given the dissatisfaction with present educational practice, their initiatives may find a welcome. We may yet look back one day and find that Dorothy Sayers’ educational fantasy has sown the seeds of a new flourishing of Christian education.
Andrew Starkie is Assistant Curate of St Bartholomew’s, Long Benton, in the Diocese of Newcastle.
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