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    Educational Philosophy

    Classical Education: Is Dorothy Sayers the Only Way?

    April 17, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    I have received a couple emails lately {to which I haven’t had time to respond individually, so sorry!} about the relationship between Charlotte Mason and Classical Education. One of them specifically referenced “combining” the two approaches, as if Charlotte Mason were one thing, and Classical Education another. After all of my reading and thinking, I have concluded that Charlotte Mason is quite different from what I often call neoclassicism, which is the modern approach a la Dorothy Sayers essay, but as far as the long stream of the Great Conversation goes, she fits quite nicely into it.

    In other words, I believe that Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy is one expression of the tradition that is Classical Education. This is why, for instance, we see elements of Comenius, especially in her approach to schooling under the age of six, and Cicero in her practice of narration.

    And so on.

    So I’m going to repost my comments on this from the past, making any edits I deem necessary. {For the record, the original is here.}

    But before I go on, I want to clear up a myth I have seen rearing its ugly head from a link that has been feeding to this site, and that is the idea that Charlotte Mason can be discredited on the grounds that she educated a rich elite. The person who said this obviously ought to read a basic biographical sketch of Miss Mason, such as the one found in For the Children’s Sake. Charlotte Mason organized schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods amongst the poorest of England’s poor, the mining families. She was quite proud of her results, as many in her day believed that mining families were genetically determined to be ignorant and could not be redeemed out of that situation by any means.

    All of this is to say: don’t believe everything people say on a forum.


    Moving on…below is the new version of the old post…


    But the exercise of the memory does not mean
    the wearing the pupil out
    by requiring him to learn things off by heart;
    but the frequent and sufficient presentation
    of things clearly understood,
    till, of their own accord,
    they adhere.
    –S. S. Laurie in John Amos Comenius: Bishop of the Moravians

    [dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver on the Charlotte Mason Education Ning Network, I was asked this question:

    I’m curious, where did the idea of applying the trivium to stages of a child’s life come from? I’ve heard it was Dorothy Sayers, but I’m curious what the reasoning was for it. Was there any research, historical practice, or anything else that anyone is aware of that this practice stems from? I’m thinking it must have some solid ground with followers like Doug Wilson, Sproul, etc. It is foundational in the classical approach so I wonder. Because if it is true, then it would follow that CMers are missing opportunities to implant knowledge via memorization in the early years. But then I suppose CM’s methods come only from her writings as well. Maybe it’s just my aversion to rote memorization and grammar that deters me from that part of classical ed.

    Classical Education: Is Dorothy Sayers the Only Way

    This is something I’ve been thinking about myself for quite some time, and I’m going to try and offer my thoughts upon the subject, as long as we establish that I am {1} not an expert, and {2} only telling you what I know and think {which is very little in comparison with certain other people named Andrew Kern} and {3} in possession of a generous amount of angst when it comes to memory work*.

    And also math.

    And spelling.

    And what is for dinner tonight.


    I have developed opinions on Sayers et. al. over the last year or so which are not typical, but are also not as rare as I once thought. Personally, I think that Sayers’ speech The Lost Tools of Learning {which I understand was given at a fundraiser and was meant to get people thinking rather than be an absolute standard for classical education} appealed to the modern mind’s desire to organize, categorize, and divide the educational process. I’m not saying the speech was bad, for I find a lot of helpful ideas in it, and I try to read it once per year, but I also think there is much to be wary of.

    It also helps to remember that Sayers was a Medieval Scholar and likely got her inspiration from reading the educational works of the Middle Ages.

    Because of this, we can look at Comenius as reference {since that is who I’ve been studying lately — but Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince is pretty incredible, from what I hear, and there are many others — Martin Luther comes to mind — whose works we can read today}, to see if what Sayers wrote at all resembles what the ancients did.

    Comenius did divide his students into large age ranges, each governed by a different school. For instance, from 0 to 6, he had what he called the Mother School. Charlotte would have loved this! The school focused on gaining knowledge of real things through the senses, intuition, the bond with the family — Poetic Knowledge! The child in Mother School would learn the names for many things, from colors to constellations, and rudimentary knowledge of geography, mathematics, economics, and so on. This was all done conversationally!

    Beginning dialectic was taught through conversational question-and-answer sessions where adequate answers were required of the child. Likewise, early grammar was taught through conversational instruction in right articulation. Early rhetoric was taught through the introduction of the use of metaphor and proper vocal inflection. Interestingly enough, early morality was learned through … formation of proper habits.

    Does Charlotte have a kindred spirit here or what?

    In reading this, we see that while Sayers divided the Trivium into pieces and assigned grammar to young children, dialectic to middle-schoolers, and rhetoric to teens and above, Comenius did no such thing, expecting the Trivium to be kept intact at even preschool ages. Granted, his focus made allowances for age-appropriateness {which is why the emphasis in the younger years was on what could be grasped through use of the five external senses}, but when Sayers implied that we might save dialectic for preteens, she was saying something new.

    The next level of Comenius’ model was called Vernacular School and it was for ages 6-12 {vernacular, because the instruction was in the child’s native tongue}. At this age, they moved to internal senses {intuition in regard to causes, development of the will}, began reading, writing, drawing, making music, measuring, weighing, and memorizing.

    I did a little research on this memorizing portion — the medievals were very big on memorizing, and if I could afford it I’d buy The Book of Memory by Carruthers to try and figure all of this out — but it seems that our idea of rote memory is a little different than what Comenius was doing at the time. For instance, in the book on Comenius I am now reading, it says “let the understanding of things first be formed.” This is why there was little to no memory work {other than that which happens almost accidently between mother and child} in Mother School. This point alone tells us that their memory system was not rote, if by rote we mean memorizing disconnected facts we do not understand.

    Like Charlotte, an appeal is made to Nature. So, for instance, in Nature, matter precedes form. School books, it is argued, do not do this. The example is given {not unlike an example given in Mason’s volumes} of grammar study:

    Then in the study of a language they teach form before things, because they teach rules before words and sentences. They give rules and then examples, whereas the light ought to precede that which it is intended to light up.

    Hence the emphasis on the senses in the younger years. Children must be intimately acquainted with the things about which they will learn in books in later years.

    Here is a wonderful paragraph:

    As to Memory: To this there is necessary, first, a clear, firm, and true impression on the senses; secondly, the understanding of what is presented. Words by themselves, if capable of no order or coherence that can engage the understanding, are not to be committed to memory, e.g. the vocables anima, esse, res, ordo, difficult to remember if so learned, are easily remembered thus, Ordo est anima rerum. Writing is a great aid to memory.

    Whatever Comenius was doing, we can see {again} that his memory work was not rote. There are so many similarities between this old classicist and Charlotte Mason, but if you read Mason’s works, you know that she quoted him, and so we know that she knew him, read him, and, like she did with everything else of value she read, incorporated some of his ideas into her own attempt at a philosophy and practice.

    Later, in regard to the Vernacular School, it is mentioned that the students memorize whatever the Teacher is reading aloud to them. This certainly reminded me of Charlotte’s recitation trick.

    Granted, there were differences between Comenius and Charlotte. For instance, Comenius used a lot of review, the afternoon lessons essentially reviewing the morning lessons, while Charlotte preferred to train the mind to pay attention, and in such a way that students came to know after a single reading. {Certainly, I prefer Charlotte in this regard!}

    There are still two more levels of school for Comenius. The next level is the Gymnasium, and that covers ages 12 to 18. The subjects in Gymnasium were to be the Trivium (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric), the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as well as physics, geography, chronology, history, ethic and theology.

    It is not presumed that a thorough knowledge of all these subjects can be attained in the Gymnasium; but only that a solid foundation may be laid in them all.

    Again we see that while Sayers’ essay seems to imply that grammar was for little children, dialectic for preteens, and rhetoric for teens and older, the case of actual classical education was quite different–a “solid foundation” for all seven liberal arts, as well as many of the sciences, was to be given to preteens and teens.

    There is yet another level: University. University was to cover “every department of knowledge.” University, unlike the other levels, was for the few rather than the many. Only the exceptional student ought to go, for this was a labor fit only for truly great minds. Some of the activities of a student at University included reading broadly {including the Greeks–this is interesting because I once read that grammar began with rules but was considered to include all of a culture’s written work, so that this could rightly be said to be grammar}, and public student debates and discussions {a combination of dialectic and rhetoric}.

    In my reading, I cannot escape the idea that though there was specific, formal training in the Trivium, and that, truly, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, were separated formally (i.e., a student’s grammar lesson was separated from his dialectic lesson). But the lines dividing them do not appear to be drawn in the way that Sayers drew them in her essay. Likewise, the memorization, which we often think of as being rote upon reading Sayers, was always based upon understanding.

    All of this is to say, though I personally have found Sayers to be inspiring and informative, I think we do great damage to allow her to speak as the sole authority on classicism, or to define a methodology of classical education.

    In fact, when we consider her audience, it is doubtful that she meant herself to be taken quite so seriously.

    When I read about the classical educator Comenius, I see far greater similarity between Comenius and Charlotte Mason than I do Comenius and Sayers.

    Let everything which is presented to the pupil,
    and rightly understood be fixed in the memory.

    *I left this in because it worked, style-wise, but my angst in regard to memory work has since cleared up, and it is actually the subject of a talk I gave at our local conference. I do, however, still have angst over things like dinner menus.


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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 7, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for the direction, Jennifer! I will definitely check out what Don Potter has to say. The thing that got me thinking this direction in regard to reading was a passing comment in How to Read a Book in which Adler calls phonics “new” and says learning ABCs {as in syllable sounds} was the original. {Did I already say that somewhere? I don’t remember now…} Anyhow, I keep wondering how that fit with issues of non-standardized spelling, which in America at least was until after the ratification of the Constitution. So interesting…Next time I am at our local historical village, I’m going to see if I can look through the old primers!

  • Reply Jennifer May 6, 2012 at 1:23 am

    Here are a few thoughts…

    First, great article, Brandy! I, too, have had similar thoughts about Sayer’s essay – like, where did she get her ideas? How did classisists teach before she wrote this? etc. etc. I agree with you that too many people (mostly Christians) have jumped on this band wagon of what you call neo-classical education. I think we like to be told what is good for us and then do it…

    As for history of teaching reading. Don Potter has quite a few resources on his website, but not all of them have good footnotes so it’s hard to tell what is fact and what is opinion of the authors. Webster, in fact, wrote one of the first “spellers” used in the USA, and Don Potter has done quite a bit of work with it in his spelling/reading lessons. You could google it if it interests you. Warning, I’m not saying that the articles posted on his site are definitely true, historically speaking. I’ve had an in-depth conversation on this with someone from the Year 0 AO yahoo group, and she was pretty sure that one of the articles was more opinion than history (and it purported to be a history lesson).

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! I should read Comenius directly!

  • Reply Kelly April 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    I don’t really know much about Comenius, and I hate to play devil’s advocate, but he’s known as the Father of Modern Education, which isn’t exactly a positive epithet in my opinion. Do you have any insight into that?

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm

      By all means, play! 🙂

      I have never heard him called that, and I *do* wonder why! I would love to know the answer to that…That is very interesting to me. And I agree that is not flattering!

      Most of my knowledge of him comes from reading the book I referenced {and not all of it, I confess}, and listening to a few talks in which Dr. Grant referenced him quite a bit. He is the father of pansophism, and New College Franklin has used much of this philosophy to ground their school, from my understanding. Pansophism seems deeply and thoroughly Christian to me, but I admit that my understanding of it is shallow.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 19, 2012 at 12:12 am

      Okay, I’m about halfway through the talk Mystie pointed to, and I think I now know why Comenius was called the Father of Modern Education. He was the first to introduce the idea of gradation. If you notice in what I mentioned, they were big age ranges, such as 0-6, but according to Wilson, before that there really wasn’t any such thing as a prerequisite at all. In the sense that our age-segregated schools are his heirs, I suppose he is their father, but from what I have read his purpose was to permit a more orderly learning a la CM, not to separate all children from each other on a year by year basis.

      More later, but I thought I’d throw it out there while I was thinking about it…

    • Reply Kelly April 19, 2012 at 3:50 am

      So, here are a few things I’ve turned up.

      From the “Brief Critical Survey” at the end of the book you linked: “Let all the arts and sciences, he said, be taught in their elements in all schools and more fully at each successive stage of the pupil’s progress.” (p.211)

      I don’t know if there’s an official name for this, but it’s the way schools now teach everything each year, only trying to go a little more in-depth each year. When I was in school, we had American History from Columbus to modern times every single year — with the result that we never learned much about American history. You can’t when you’re skimming like that.


      On page 205 he says, “On the other hand the eternal idea is departed from whenever… the teacher does not teach all things himself but commits them to another or presents to the pupil a dumb teacher — a book.”

      According to this site, Comenius “viewed teaching as a technical skill; if performed correctly, one could guarantee the results.”


      Oh, I had one other thought but I was interrupted and I’ve forgotten it. Somewhere along the line I read that he influenced John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Pestalozzi whom I’d never heard of, but he’s the guy who influenced Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten.

      The bits you’ve quoted and a lot of what I read (er, skimmed) in the Laurie book were good. I wonder if it was sort of like what happened with Descartes — he didn’t mean to make a radical break with tradition but that’s what wound up happening. Was it Norms and Nobility that talked about Dewey, and how he probably would be shocked to see what his ideas grew into?

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      I couldn’t find that first quote initially, and then I realized I linked two different versions of the book, one in the first quote and one in the last. Strange!

      When I read “let all the arts and sciences be taught…more fully at each successive stage of the pupil’s progress” I simply think of building knowledge upon knowledge. I assume the arts here are the seven liberal arts (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, math, music, geometry, and astronomy). And by sciences I assume he meant the four sciences (natural–i.e. biology, chemistry, etc., human–ethics and politics, philosophical, and theological). I teach this way, regarding the seven liberal arts. We touch on all seven each year (some *very* informally and briefly, and here I think mostly of geometry, in which we have only briefly discussed concepts like area, shape, etc.), and each year we build upon that to a more mature understanding. That seems to be very natural to me, but maybe I misunderstood and you are right? I don’t know. I didn’t get the sense that he would, for instance, teach the entire sweep of history in a single year and again the next year, but maybe I’m wrong, or maybe you are just saying that this is one logical but faulty application of his ideas?

      In my opinion, the radical break here would have been in thinking that the four sciences could be presented to children! That tended to be the dominion of the university. He *did* invent the idea of gradation and pre-requisite knowledge, but I am grateful for that because, as Wilson explains in his talk, without that only geniuses can be educated. Wilson made perfect sense to me in that regard.

      In general, the idea that books could teach seems to have been pioneered more by later characters such as CM. I’m not saying I agree with him, but I *do* think that he was a product of his time in this regard. When we look at the great sweep of classical education, we see that students were usually taught directly by masters in a way strikingly similar to Jesus’ teaching of His disciples. The students often lived with the master and hung on his every word. We recently read a history of Galen, and he *did* read books, but his education also focused on moving from master to master in order to broaden his education.

      Comenius is an interesting person to me because he is claimed as their own by the left, progressive establishment, as well as the right, classical establishment. When I read through the tenants of pansophism, I am very comfortable that he believed in books, at least, because one of his seven principles concerned a literature-basis–the idea that because God revealed Himself in words, we ought to be people of words, and by this he meant actual, written words, not just spoken. I wrote some notes on this based on a talk by Dr. Grant here.

      I think you are completely right that some folks have run off with what should probably be considered his *flaws* in the way of Descartes, etc. And yes I think it *was* N&N that discussed that because I remember that, too.

    • Reply Kelly April 19, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      “[T]his is one logical but faulty application of his ideas” — yes that’s what I was doing. Just looking over his ideas and recognizing how they could have been the basis of certain bad methods in modern schools, given that the modern school’s philosophical underpinning is Darwinisn, not Christianity.

      “He *did* invent the idea of gradation and pre-requisite knowledge, but I am grateful for that because, as Wilson explains in his talk, without that only geniuses can be educated. Wilson made perfect sense to me in that regard.”

      That’s a really good point. I had been noticing some major differences between the Truly Classical and our Modified Classical methods and was wondering about their relative values. Do you know that phonics education is fairly recent? The TC method was to teach the alphabet (names only, as far as I can tell) and then the use something like the look-say method of reading instruction. In that case, it’s no wonder that only “geniuses” could be educated.

      The spirit of the classical approach is to take the heritage, sift it, and improve on it. That’s definitely an improvement!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 19, 2012 at 5:10 pm

      You know, I have really wanted to study the history of teaching reading. My curiosity actually started when Mortimer Adler wrote (in How to Read a Books) that the original alphabet instruction in the American primers was a form of phonics, and they wouldn’t just learn the “a” but “a” “ab” “ac” “ad” and so on and when they learned all of the sounds of all of the letters, they were said to know their ABCs. I have tried to figure that out using old books I have but my books must not be old *enough*. I would think that phonics instruction pre-1828 would have been hard here, at least, because it wasn’t until then that Noah Webster standardized our spelling…

      The point of Wilson’s talk is that *Sayers* did what you explained–took the heritage, sifted it, and improved upon it–with her application of the Trivium to developmental stages. I don’t think she did anything horrible, but I’m not sure I completely buy it. You know me: I prefer CM, especially since one thing I’ve noticed is that with Sayers it is very easy to get overly focused on the academics, whereas with CM she was focused on character on ideas and the food of the mind. It is a better fit for us, though I certainly don’t begrudge someone for preferring the other.

      Actually, Wilson’s talk helped me clear and few things up in my brain and I plan to write a short follow-up post if I have the time this afternoon…

      Okay my coffee break is over. 🙂

      I love these sorts of conversations with you, Kelly!

    • Reply Kelly April 20, 2012 at 1:37 am

      Syllables! I’d forgotten about that — still not really phonics, though. I enjoy the conversations with you too — you write about such interesting things!

      And here’s a little known fact. Southerners used the British spellings up until the early 20th century. The advent of compulsory schooling plus the teachers being required to attend a normal school is what finally brought standardized American spelling to the South. I resent that a little, so if I catch myself spelling something the “British” way, I usually don’t bother to correct it. :-p

  • Reply Meredith in Aus April 18, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Great thougths, Brandy. Isn’t it amazing how we can each take a word (like ‘rote’) and have different understandings of it. So important to get a full understanding of another’s meaning so as to not get the wrong end of the stick.

    As to Doug Wilson and Sayers, I was listening to a lecture of his on audiobook (The Integrated Life) where he says that (basically) when he (and a couple others) wanted to start a christian school for his kids to attend he had no idea where to start but vaguely remembered reading Sayers’ essay in a magazine years before when he was in the navy. It seemed a good pattern and so they used it. There you go. :oD

    In Him


    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Yes. At one point I so struggled with that word that I hardly did any memory work at all–basically nothing beyond Scripture! I am so glad God changed my heart and mind in that area because memory work is a treasured time in our house now.

      I wonder if the lecture you are referencing is the one Mystie emailed to me yesterday? If so, I plan to listen to it this afternoon during naps!

      By the way, in case anyone was wondering, I didn’t mean this to be *against* Sayers, but to explain that CM *is* classical in the old sense…

    • Reply Mystie April 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      Oops. Can’t edit comments apparently. The Integrated Life is a different one and I found it online (; it’s more autobiographical than the one I sent you (Defending Sayer’s Insight, but he shares the same story in both. 🙂

    • Reply Meredith in Aus April 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      I didn’t get the impression that you were ‘against’ Sayers. :o)


    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      I am relieved! When I re-read some of this I thought that I hoped no one thought that I meant Sayers *wasn’t* classical or something like that. 🙂

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... April 18, 2012 at 8:28 am

    How interesting!!! Thank you.

    Did you figure out your dinner menus? 😉

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Well, I plan meals a week at a time now, so as long as we don’t forget something at the grocery store, I only have issues once per week instead of daily. 🙂 I think part of it is that I am just not a very creative chef, so I get stuck in a rut, but have trouble figuring how to get out of it!

  • Reply Sharlene April 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing this again. I think I missed it the first time. I must read Comenius. I think my approach to education is more along his lines and I didn’t even know it.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Comenius was really remarkable. At one point, Oxford wanted him to redesign their entire curriculum!

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