The Lost Tools of Learning

Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay The Lost Tools of Learning wrote, “Is not the great defect of our education today… that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” As I read this I was reminded of the words of Mark Twain: “I will never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” How tragic that this is precisely the case today. Our schools are turning out students who may have learned certain subject matter but have no ability to think critically. As Sayers continues to point out in her article, they learn the subjects but forget how they came to learn it.

Education is not about memorizing facts and data, it is about learning to learn. The subjects, the assignments, the tests and drills are all supposed to be designed for the purpose of teaching students to think and reason. The content is simply the means to the end, not the end itself.

So instead of turning out generations of brilliant thinkers, we are ending up with people who exit the education system, pick a field of trade, and promptly forget most of what they’ve learned in school. And what they’ve forgotten are facts. They cannot be faulted for forgetting the skills of critical thinking and reasoning, because these were never taught in the first place. Sayers goes on to talk about how most people today can’t even discern between a good, logical, reasonable argument and one that is full of beans.

Sayer’s main thesis is that the education system is in serious need of change. Education, as it did in the Middle Ages, should start with learning how to reason. After this skill is established, then the other subjects of mathematics, sciences and histories become relevant and applicable to everyday life. Without the ability to reason, subjects are just dead facts doomed to wither within our grey matter, unused.

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