The Lost Tools of Learning

Why is it that in our society children’s mental growth does not seem to keep up with their physical growth?  Although most young people can read, why are they more influenced by movies and music? How come it seems these young people have no idea how to disentangle truth from fiction in what they hear?  Why are most adults we know unable to debate well, failing to define terms or stick to the topic being discussed?  Why is it that people have such a hard time making (obvious) connections between one school subject and another?  The answer to these questions lies in the fact that modern education focuses on teaching various specific academic subjects while failing to instruct students on how to think and learn.   Our places of education have lost the tools of learning.

Dorothy Sayers wrote an instructive essay called The Lost Tools of Learning in which she defines the Trivium as the answer to our educational woes.  The Trivium is made up of three different age-appropriate methods of dealing with subjects, teaching pupils to master the tools of learning so they can later apply these tools to a variety of subjects.  The first stage of the Trivium, the Grammar stage, is primarily concerned with filling up on facts.  Students 9 to 11 years old seem to enjoy learning “by heart” and yet are not generally interested in reasoning things out so we give them lots to memorize without worrying too much about how well they understand the material.  The second stage in the Trivium is the Dialectic stage in which 12 to 14 year old students find themselves becoming more boldly argumentative.  The child moves from being delighted to learn the “what” of a subject to demanding to understand the “why.”  At this stage, we focus on the beauty of a fine-tuned argument, learn how to detect fallacy and bad reasoning, and teach children to research and discover.  Somewhere around age 14, children begin to realize their limitations of knowledge.  The Rhetoric stage, the third stage of the Trivium, is the time to throw open the “storehouse of knowledge” for the students to “browse about at will.”  In this stage, children will focus on learning how to express themselves elegantly and persuasively.

As the students move through the three stages of the Trivium and become adept at utilizing the tools of learning, they begin to see the interconnectedness of all subjects.  Dorothy Sayers says, “…[As] Dialectic will have shown all branches of learning to be inter-related, so Rhetoric will tend to show that all knowledge is one.”  Because the Trivium uses the “Great” books, life and learning are studied as a whole.  Students educated through the Trivium become partakers of a Conversation that has been going on for millenia.


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