The Virtue of Going Back

One Friday evening not so long ago I stumbled upon a wonderful essay by Ms. Dorothy Sayers, titled, The Lost Tools of Learning. In her essay are made many points regarding the quality of (then) modern education, which to observers and practitioners of our own modern public education regime will ring all the truer today. It is always a helpful exercise to compare the concerns of those who lived 100 years or more before us to their present state. Often it seems that what these men and women feared would happen in their own time has since come home to roost. Such is the case with Ms. Sayers’ observations on the state of education, then as now.

What Ms. Sayers advocates for is a mode of education both quite old and, in the hubris of our own day, quite new. I write “hubris,” because her proposals are in fact quite old, and yet they have recently taken on a remarkable enthusiasm as if they were, in the fashion of our time, completely original. But they are not, for they are, rather, the very foundation upon which modern education is built – the Trivium and the Quadrivim. It would take a rare sort of humility to admit that the most effective form of education is also the oldest and the longest disregarded. Much easier it would be simply to proclaim a “rediscovery” of such methods. Whatever the case, the important truth is that these methods have once again been embraced.

To be wise, we must begin our search for truth and wisdom not in the present, but in the past, for it is in the past where we find the goodness, beauty, and truth in much purer forms. Perhaps we can improve upon it, or add to it but before we can do so we must first recognize and understand it. Though Descartes has been popularly considered as the standard bearer of modernism, and the dastardly dictatorship of relativism that must necessarily accompany it, t’was this same Descartes who also said: “The reading of all the great books is like conversing with the best people of earlier times; it is even studied conversation in which the authors show us only the best of their thoughts.”

Ms. Sayers openly acknowledges at the off of her essay the improbability that her proposed reforms will be carried into effect, but does not seem bothered by the unpopularity of her suggestions. She writes,

“… if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the middle ages.”

If Sayers knew her proposals were unpopular in her own time, when there was still some semblance of respect or tolerance for the traditions and ideas of the past, with how much more hostility would her proposals be accepted today? The answer, as it happens, is not what one might expect, but we will come to that in due time. She understands what her detractors will immediately think – “reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, ladautor temporis acti (praiser of times past) – but asks that judgment be suspended long enough to consider her perspective.

Of course, this is not a progressive idea, but rather a regressive one. The focus is still forward, as well it should be, but in order to move forward one must sometimes move backwards. As writes C.S. Lewis, who was a peer of Ms. Sayers, in The Case for Christianity,

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we much go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”

This is an important point that is often missed – progression, yes, but towards what? As a matter of logic, one must have a goal if one desires progression. Our society has, in most aspects, lost its way. It is not that we have taken the wrong fork in the road; rather we have gone past the guard rail and wandered into the wilderness with eyes closed and hands tied, and this all because we were offended that someone had once been kind and enterprising enough as to give us a path to follow. Such is the modern hubris, that what is old must be regarded simply because it is not new and thus does not benefit from modern intelligence. The result is our modern world, built of plywood and held together with duct tape.

Yet, so enamored with the idea of newness are we, as an increasingly global society, that we will only accept the successes of the past when someone else has been brave and wise enough to consider them in the present. This brings us to the matter of education. Ms Sayers writes,

“… 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. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.”

This was once and for some time the primary purpose of education at any level, to teach students how to learn. Once a student has learned this most important of skills, what remains beyond his grasp? Thus was the student taught “subjects,” beginning in the Quadrivium of his education, but even these subjects were not in the manner that one might think today. Rather the subjects he would have been taught were more akin to advanced intellectual skills, all aimed at fine-tuning his ability to learn. A student who would go on to become, say, a merchant, was not the skills of business in his education. Those he would soon enough learn in his apprenticeship. Rather, he was taught just how a philosopher, or a doctor, or a mathematician might think – logically and reasonably. As it happens, both logic and reason are universally applicable regardless of one’s profession – though certainly far less so today, with such a proliferation of professional drudgery type jobs. Man was not made to spend his life in a cubicle or a call center. Those are perversions both of nature and of human potential.

Yes, to go forward we must consider looking back to our classical past. It is our past that offers us the best of human effort, that sets for us the standards by which later generations will live and measure themselves. The great men of the Western canon – from Cincinnatus to Augustine to son of Arathorn were all of them haunted by one question: Am I living up to the great standards sets by those who came before? To consider the classical, though, is not to stagnate. Plato built upon his Socratic foundation, and Aristotle upon the Platonic – and St. Augustine upon the three, and St. Aquinas upon the four! Neither Plato nor Aristotle, nor Augustine nor Aquinas became great by throwing down the traditions and teachings of their predecessors, but rather by mastering the ideas of those who came before, and added their own insight thereto.

This is what we must do, then. This is not a condemnation on the present emphasis on mathematics and science. Those are both noble and important intellectual directions. They have, however, been given an undue level of import due to our cultural expulsion of the humanities.

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