Friday, May 23, 2008

The Lost Tools of Learning

I came across a most interesting essay by the British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers entitled The Lost Tools of Learning written in 1947. While there are many details with which one could quibble, I find myself in substantial agreement with her larger point about the importance of early-on, equipping children with the tools of learning as opposed to simply acquiring specific bodies of knowledge.

I am daily astonished at the intellectual paucity underpinning some of our most important debates and how rarely there is any engagement around the facts and logic of the issue and how much of what passes for debate is actually an exercise in out-emoting one another. And everything is a crisis. It would appear that every advocate has to establish the primacy of their cause by making it a crisis. We can no longer just prioritize issues by their importance.

Take the issuance of a "study" this past week by the American Association of University Women (various background articles here,here, and here). In the first instance, it is debatable whether there is a "crisis" as defined by the proponents of the theory that males and white males in particular have the cards stacked against them in virtually all government programs. An issue, yes- but a crisis? On the other hand, the AAUW study does have some interesting data within it but their interpretation of that data is at several critical points logically fallacious as has been pointed out by a number of commentators within the blogosphere and yet there is little main stream acknowledgement of what is patently obvious.

Whether it is education, global warming, sexism, racism, or such mundane issues as to how well the economy is performing, facts and logic take a back seat and the discussion is driven by those that frame the discussion in terms of how important they feel the issue is and which facts can be taken out of context and couched in a way to support the conclusion at which they have already arrived.

Sayer's essay has many interesting observations and suggestions and is very quotable.

Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase--reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past), or whatever tag comes first to hand--I will ask you to consider one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and occasionally pop out to worry us.

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society. The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is there there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more?

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?

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?


I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, which offers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the "distressing fact" that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them: "he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it."

And finally:

For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

Read the whole essay, it is well worth it.

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