Friday, December 17, 2010

Sayers' TLTOL (part 3)

Sayers calls into question the discernment and debating abilities of those educated in modern times:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, 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? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?
Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?
I shy away from conflict. Just a small Facebook quarrel via comments can ruin my day because it's all words with no conciliatory faces to show that no hard feelings are accompanying the disagreement. I don't waste time watching Presidential debates because they're mostly performing for cameras and trying to make the other person look stupid to the projected demographic makeup of the audience. Don't misunderstand me: debate is incredibly important to our republic. But I don't see it well done, so I try not to waste my time or emotions watching useless debate. Ad hominem attacks, incomplete facts, and utter failure to understand the other side's point of view characterize much of "public debate" these days (go ahead and throw in some corruption, too, of course, for Americans aren't magically immune to it). I wish we had an Abraham Lincoln who could write his own eloquent and thought-out speeches, but we don't. Inspiring demeanor or folksy down-to-earthness don't make an argument valid or convincing. Is the solution teaching Latin to kids? Of course not, but there's a lot more to the education that Sayers is proposing in this essay.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dorothy Sayers and TLTOL (part one)

In preparing to homeschool my children, I have read several books that reference an essay by Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning", and it can be found online here. To help myself better understand the essay, I think I'll review it bit by bit here on my blog. The first two paragraphs are as follows:

That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology. It is a kind of behavior to which the present climate of opinion is wholly favorable. Bishops air their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics; inorganic chemists, about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly technical ministries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how to draw. Up to a certain point, and provided the the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, these activities are commendable. Too much specialization is not a good thing. There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education. For if we are not all professional teachers, we have all, at some time or another, been taught. Even if we learnt nothing--perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing--our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value.
However, it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect. Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment. For they amount to this: that 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.
She starts off by saying that she, as a nonprofessional teacher, can critique teaching methodologies just as well as a bishop can discuss economics or plain men criticize Picasso's drawing ability. Frankly, I don't think that bishops are in a position to spout opinions on economics or that one could rationally claim that Picasso couldn't draw, so her first point falls flat. However, her second point is valid: we have all been taught in our lives, be it poorly or well, thus we can hold opinions on teaching obtained from our own experience. I read tonight that Sayers' father began teaching her Latin when she was six years old, so she certainly has a basis in her own early life for understanding classical education. There is a third point that she could have made in her introduction: that everyone can be a teacher, professional or not (Socrates preferred "not", and he is recognized as a great teacher).
Her second paragraph has been shown false. Many people have been influenced by her essay to "turn back the wheel of progress" to promote classical educations (e.g., The Well-Trained Mind and Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum). Progress originally meant "moving forward", not "moving in a better direction". The latter definition of "progress" as gradual betterment seems reflective of the optimism and/or arrogance of modern humans who think they are wiser than their ancestors. Taller, yes, but wiser? I'm not convinced of that. I'm OK with discarding some newer pedagogical ideas if it means my children are better taught due to use of older methods. Where's my hornbook? :)