Why Sayers’ “Education” is Almost Unschooling

Suffice to say that if I’m going to homeschool based on a particular approach, I had better read my source documents carefully. I wrote earlier this year about combining a classical and an unschooling approach, but then I came across this essay and this blog post and I realized my mistake: I hadn’t yet read Dorothy L. Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Whoops. This is a problem as classical education authors such as Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, often refer to Sayers’ essay quite consistently.

Thankfully Project Gutenberg sorted that out quick enough. I also hadn’t looked up Sayers before, and was surprised to see that she was a writer, but not necessarily a teacher. She pokes fun at those who think they are qualified to teach because they themselves have been taught, but then again, this is a crime novelist promoting her own views on education, based purely on her own experiences and observations. To be fair, anyone can write about anything, but it’s funny to think that this particular essay of Sayers has inspired a whole multitude of curricula.

In short, Sayers’ idea of education is to equip children with tools of learning and not dictate content in the least. Content is merely there for children to “doodle” (Sayers, 1948) on as they learn how to hold a pen and form letters, so to speak. This contrasts greatly to Bauer’s ideas in The Well-Trained Mind that students ought to follow a thrice-repeated four-year cycle of understanding world history. Instead of enduing students with any particular content knowledge, Sayers believed that the point of an education was to “have learnt and remembered the art of learning.” Indeed, she says,

… the essential is that [the student] should acquire the method of learning in whatever medium suits [them] best.

Sayers, D.L. (1948). The lost tools of learning. Methuen.

Having read the original essay now, I think Sayers would get on quite well with today’s public school educators. She begins the essay (hilariously IMO) with a discussion on teachers and their ever-expanding list of things to do besides teach: feed children, check for measles and mumps, interview parents, and so on. She laments the seeming ineptitude of the education system then, where students learn but don’t learn, and where subjects are so divided in the public mind that people cannot easily draw mental connections between “sewage disposal and the price of salmon.” I can only guess that she wouldn’t be pleased knowing that seventy years later, her writing is still terrifyingly relevant.

Canadian teachers are trained to teach skills and competencies, too, in the belief that students should learn to learn. Increasingly I have seen a push for accommodations in the classroom, to express to students the precise belief that learning can be in any medium that suits them. (Unfortunately the requirement of proving one’s own learning is a great drawback to communicating such a belief: assessments are where students easily become caught up in earning grades over cultivating a healthy attitude towards the act of learning.)

All this is to say that I have been mulling over the point and purpose of homeschooling, lately. As the toddler is getting to an age where I hear other mothers talk about preschool, I am more and more excited about being able to plan things for us to do in the day (and actually do them!) But when I read Charlotte Mason or Susan Wise Bauer and realize that I disagree with them or that I find their arguments faulty, I find that I am less and less interested in cleaving to a particular approach, especially when the approach is almost synonymous with an author.

Unschooling, then, speaks to me as strong as ever, with its lack of adherence to any one person. That’s not to say that I don’t still appreciate reading accounts, such as Ben Hewitt’s Home Grown. His own life experiences and in observing his children leads him to conclude that freedom in learning leads to a love of knowledge and the very process of attaining knowledge, and:

… the result is that they end up learning and doing what they should be learning and doing, when they should be learning and doing it, and for this simple reason they become better at whatever occupation they have chosen… and the world becomes better for it” (p. 154).

Hewitt, B. (2014). Home grown: Adventures off the beaten path, unschooling, and reconnecting with the natural world. Roost Books.

I don’t mean the world at large, although that would be nice, but I do mean the toddler’s world, at least, as a very start. Really, all I can say right now is that I would like to see the toddler’s love of learning be nurtured so that it flourishes full and strong, and I think she’ll have more opportunity for that at home than in the current school system.


Featured photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash.

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