The (still) lost art of learning

“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?” — Dorothy Sayers

Sometimes world events wind up creating unexpected prophets. Even though it appears, in the quote above, that Ms. Sayers was a witness to the latest presidential debate spectacle, the truth is her words were penned 70 years ago.

As we collectively anticipate next week’s edition of the Presidential Argument and Insult Exercise, it may be impossible to predict what might happen next. It is certainly possible, however, to predict what won’t happen: No one will be reminded of the Lincoln-Douglas debates next Wednesday night.

The last debacle, watched by some 69 million viewers, offered more proof that the modern formats fail miserably at delivering any real substance to voters.

Accepting that our contemporary candidates are far cries from Lincoln or Douglas, the method of the debates in the fall of 1858 are still looking more appealing all the time. Back then, one candidate opened the debate with an address lasting one hour. The other candidate would then speak for 90 minutes, followed by a rebuttal period of 30 minutes by the first candidate.

Depending on the speech tempo and articulation rate, a speaker might roughly deliver 6,000 words in a 60-minute address; the length of the Lincoln and Douglas opening remarks generally fell between 5,000 and 6,000 words. (For context, this column is about 850 words.)

That speech-oriented debate format would give modern Oval Office-seekers a much better opportunity to address important issues in ways that might actually give thinking voters real grist for their ballot consideration mill.

It also would allow candidates a better chance to present their personalities in total. Lincoln’s folksy humor, for example, was on full display during his debates, as was the reasoning power and rhetorical capabilities of both he and his opponent. There’s no hiding behind soundbites or talking points or red herrings when you have a whole hour to fill. There’s still room for zingers—but they have to complement a larger body of cohesive and cogent presentation content, instead of serving as superficial scene-stealers.

When Dorothy Sayers posed her question in a 1947 essay, her main topic wasn’t politics but education. Titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” that essay lamented the loss of classical education as a scholastic discipline and, as a result, the loss in mainstream society of the art of fundamental critical-thinking abilities and practices.

What Sayers called for seven decades ago was a return to antiquity’s Liberating Arts philosophy of learning that begins with the classical Trivium. The Trivium is a system of teaching critical thinking, which comprises three stages of study: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Those three study areas are not “subjects,” but rather methods of approaching subjects in an educative sense.

In her 2002 book promoting a return to classical education training, Sister Miriam Joseph concisely explained the Trivium at its core: “Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.”

In short, you can think of the Trivium as delivering knowledge (Grammar) which once understood (Logic) can be transmitted as wisdom (Rhetoric).

Traditionally, the Trivium was the lower three of the classical liberal arts, which prepared students for capable study of the upper four arts, known as the Quadrivium, which included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Sayers’ observation about education in the 1940s was that while it was somewhat effective in teaching children “subjects,” it failed to teach them how to properly and logically think. “They learn everything,” she wrote, “except the art of learning …

“By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words … they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”

Classical education is enjoying something of a renaissance, primarily among private schools and home-school environments, and strong evidence suggests it is superior in a preparatory sense for collegiate liberal arts curricula.

Even in Sayers’ day, she feared reforms improbable because the education “machine” would oppose it. All these years later, it might be even more improbable—except that we are witnessing debates that look anything but presidential.

It’s doubtful most modern candidates could rise to the Lincoln-Douglas standard, and perhaps the main reason is because both of those men subscribed to the then-generally accepted classical education model.

Hope springs eternal, they say, and the old often becomes new again. Schools and students in other states are rediscovering the powerful tools of learning that classical education provides. Maybe we’ll find them here in Arkansas, too.


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