Against the Dorothy Sayers Movement
It was in June 2009 that I posted my commentary on Dorothy Sayers’ speech, The Lost Tools of Learning and the criticism I offered caused some commotion. The primary reason that it led to the frenzy it did was because it seemed that someone was speaking badly of something sacred. Based on the responses I received, one might have thought I had called Mother Theresa a glutton or that I was burning Bibles. All I did was point out the errors in a 20th century English writer’s ideas on education.
Nothing sacred was spoken of at all.
I posted that critique because my observation that Christian parents were embracing Dorothy Sayers—first as a "Christian writer", and second as a curriculum expert—had baffled me for years. "How in the world," I asked, "could families, seeking to restore traditional Christian education, think that they have a friend in Dorothy Sayers?!" It is only through our generation’s ignorance of history that Sayers could be mistaken for a representative of traditional Christian culture and learning.
Sayers, who passed away in 1956, represents everything false in 20th century Christianity. She represents the evils that plague the modern family. She represents the modern arrogance and recklessness that inspires liberalism. Nevertheless, she has gained an obsessive army of followers, who depend on her exclusively for their ideas on "classical" education, while believing that they are resisting modern people who, really, are just like Sayers. Her followers run at breakneck speed to start schools, create websites and blogs, publish books and organize conferences to promote her ideas as though she is a Doctor of the Church. Her ideas are quoted and recited as though the hearing of them will end all debates. All that the authors and school leaders offer is "Dorothy Sayers said…" and the crowd sits in silence as though the voice of Christian history itself is about to speak. There is no consultation of Aristotle, Cicero, Sacred Scripture, the Church fathers, the great Christian educators of history—only Dorothy Sayers. It is a fascinating spectacle. While she speaks in direct contradiction to the entire history of Christian and classical education, she is followed zealously.
What amazes me most is that the people following Sayers all claim to be opposed to the unproven and constantly changing fads of modern schools, yet they fail to stop and ask whether the movement they are investing their lives in and entrusting their children to is just one more of these fads. Well, I’d like to tell you in advance that the "Dorothy Sayers Movement" is nothing but one more silly modern educational fad. It is, at the most, 20 years old and it will run out of gas in the near future. Books will sell, Sayers’ apostles will make a ton of money, schools will open, children will be subjected to yet another educational experiment and in the end all will be forgotten. The books will be thrown away, the gurus will be off onto some other theory, the parents will be poorer, the schools will be closed, the children will be no better and another decade will be wasted.
Now, what I am going to share may be hard to accept for any who have imprudently invested in the Dorothy Sayers Movement, but it needs to be accepted if timeless Christian education, which is also classical and true human education, is ever going to be restored. Some may find me arrogant in saying this, but my confidence is not in myself but in the men whose writings I rely on and on the arguments that can be made and defended. The difficulty I have in writing an article like this is that there are so many 2
arguments available to make against the Dorothy Sayers Movement that choosing those that are most helpful and most urgently needed is difficult. However, I intend to help parents and teachers understand, before they take another step forward or spend another dollar, who Dorothy Sayers was and how her ideas relate to the history of Christian education. I’m going to concentrate on two issues
My goal in doing this is to help parents who don’t know better to see through the hype and make sound decisions regarding the education of their children. This is a long article, but I assure you that if you want the truth, you’ll find it very helpful.
By the adoration she receives in many Christian circles, one would expect Dorothy Sayers to be--like Elizabeth Ann Seton or Catherine Drexel--a patron saint of Christian education. She is quoted as though she were divinely inspired, with no support required for statements she makes and no history required to prove the trustworthiness of her suggestions. Many books, websites and schools simply assert, “Dorothy Sayers said”…and move on. As I’ve said, this adoration and authority is completely unfounded and, to me, reveals the hypocrisy of the Dorothy Sayers Movement. It is not a movement founded on careful reason and commitment to Christian tradition as its lack of supporting evidence proves.
In reality, Sayers was anything but a saintly woman. In fact, she was the polar opposite of the godly Christian women speaking about her today as they teach their children. The fact that they are promoting her name and works will one day be a cause for regret and embarrassment. The false Dorothy Sayers is known by her public façade and writing career—the Dorothy Sayers she wanted people to know. The true Dorothy Sayers is known through her private letters and the knowledge of her personal life revealed by her relatives, one of whom wrote her biography after her death. This Dorothy Sayers is unknown to most people involved in the Dorothy Sayers Movement. Why? They have never taken time to learn anything about her. I ask you, if you have embraced Sayers’ ideas:
What did you learn
about her before you decided
Allow me to provide you with a historical understanding of who Dorothy Sayers was. Sayers is a hero to feminists today in academic circles, having been among the first women to earn a degree from Oxford University and to accomplish other typically feminist things like stir up religious scandal, challenge social norms, and all the rest. Go and find the traveling, working, family-neglecting modern career woman and you will find a woman similar to Dorothy Sayers. I am certain that you would have no interest in allowing such a woman to advise you on the education of your children is she was to stand next to you. Nevertheless, Dorothy Sayers has become the educational guide to thousands of Christian families who oppose all that she pursued in her own life. The details of Sayers’ life are available to us primarily in the biography, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, which was published in 1993 by her god-daughter, Barbara Reynolds, who founded the Dorothy Sayers Society in 1976. Her letters to one of her lovers rest in the Harvard University Library and have been printed. These are my sources and they are available to you if you would like to do the research yourself.
But wasn’t Dorothy Sayers a Christian? Well, Dorothy Sayers owed her religious reputation to her father, Rev. Henry Sayers, who was an Anglican rector (pastor) who served as chaplain of a small Anglican church in the village of Christchurch, Cambridgeshire. Rev. Sayers was also headmaster of the school there and took early action in teaching his daughter Dorothy. He started her, of course, at age 6 with Latin Grammar—which surely was not easy or pleasurable to her. He was a traditionalist and classical schoolmaster. Sayers was raised in a pious Christian home with a clergyman for a father. To consider that she ended up as she did is a terrible disappointment and it’s only in light of her early advantages that we can evaluate her later achievements. Sure, she earned a scholarship to study at Oxford, but we know that the academic achievements of children are owed to parents and teachers. That’s why we’re involved in our children’s education as much as we are. We are Christian parents, after all, not Spartan baby-bearers. It is only when the social umbilical cord is cut that we find out what is inside the child. In the end, Dorothy Sayers wrote popular mystery novels and advertising jingles. Though given much by good Christian parents Dorothy Sayers did nothing extraordinary. In fact, she did quite badly.
After leaving her Christian home, Dorothy Sayers grew to become a sexually active, single, adult, career woman in the city. In 1924, at the age of 31 (not 17 or 18), she secretly, under a false name, bore a child out of wedlock after her second known romance. Three weeks later, she sent the child away to be cared for by relatives so that she could maintain her career. In 1926, at age 33, she chose to marry a divorced man, disapproved by her parents, and was married outside the church in a civil ceremony. Thus, despite being born in a Christian home, to a clergyman, she was shamefully married contrary to the wishes of her parents and in spite of the laws of the church. Today, she is being commended to parents as the herald of the restoration of Christian education and culture in the 21st century! As I said, it’s baffling.
Let’s learn some more about Dorothy Sayers. Throughout her life, though she earned a living speaking and writing on Christian subjects, the son she bore knew her only as “Cousin” Dorothy and she never acknowledged him to be her son while she lived. Knowledge of her son was carefully concealed until after her death as it surely would have ended the all-important career she is now being praised for. Sayers’ greatest work in fiction was not found in her books, but in her own public life and it is this fictional Dorothy Sayers that has duped Christian educators. Therefore, as you read her speaking of children and education and their needs, realize that you’re reading a woman who elected not to acknowledge her own child while she taught others how to raise theirs? Isn’t that the problem with modern education?
Furthermore, Dorothy Sayers is often commended to us because of her friendships with other authors we love, like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. We are also told that she was one of the great Christian writers who formed the famous Oxford group known as “the Inklings”, but this is false. Sayers had no part in the Inklings. It is assumed by many that she was a teacher at Oxford, like Lewis and Tolkien, but this is also false. She studied at Oxford, but she had no significant teaching experience, certainly not at the university. Some assume this because her speech, The Lost Tools of Learning, is given at Oxford, but you’ll notice that it was read at a “vacation course” at Oxford, that is, while the students and professors were on vacation. Her only relation to C.S. Lewis was that she had attended meetings of the “Socratic Club”—as many other writers and even undergraduate students at Oxford did. Tolkien and Lewis were leading scholars in England, exploring all sorts of complex questions in philosophy, language and literature, while Sayers was, for the most part, writing popular “Whodunnit?” novels. Sayers did not belong to the same intellectual or spiritual class as Lewis and Tolkien, but like Agatha Christie she wrote for a popular audience. A look over her list of writings shows no work done as the “classical and medieval scholar” she is claimed to be. She never wrote anything on classical or medieval themes, never taught in a classical school, never managed a curriculum, never raised a child. The only claim she might have on medieval studies is her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was originally written not in Latin or Greek but Italian—a modern language. Her glory today has been created out of thin air by men and women who have decided, without any explanation, that a relatively unknown vacation school speech should be the blueprint for the future of Christian education. Again, this baffles me.
Honestly, the fact that this woman has become the face of the “classical Christian education” movement may end up as one of the bigger embarrassments in modern Christian history. The ignorance and error of the people promoting her as some sort of Christian cultural champion are going to be the butt of jokes for years to come. Dorothy Sayers was a dishonest career woman in early 20th century England. That’s all. If it were not for the leaders of the Dorothy Sayers Movement, neither you nor I would have ever heard about her. We might be speaking of Lewis and Tolkien, but never of Sayers. Her popularity today is owed to the ignorance of parents who have fueled the fanaticism by bringing their checkbooks to conferences and buying this nonsense. It is money that fuels the zeal for Dorothy Sayers, not research or educational experience. Knowing that her silly ideas of education sell books to homeschooling parents, she has been promoted by men and women cashing in. No one dares to say, “I am teaching Dorothy Sayers’ ideas because they are historically proven.” and yet they present her ideas under the banner of “classical education” and adorn it with images of Greeks, Romans and heroes of Church history, giving an appearance of tradition and continuity. In the next section, you’ll see why they do this—and how they get away with it.
A MESSAGE OF OPPOSITION
While few parents have ever read any of Sayers’ books, they have become familiar with her through a historically insignificant speech she gave in Oxford during a vocation period in 1947: The Lost Tools of Learning. (If you Google the title, you will see the madness that exists online.) Most of these parents read this speech, if they read it, while knowing nothing of its context or its author. Normally, parents have been told by others, the Dorothy Sayers Movement leaders and book sellers, what it meant, who it was spoken by and why it is important. I would challenge you to consider whether the information you received might be false.
Yes, the speech was given by Dorothy Sayers, but don’t think imaginary Dorothy Sayers. It was written by a woman who, as she advised others on education, ignored her own child who was alive and forced to call her “Cousin Dorothy”. It was written by a woman who was aware of the Christian philosophy of education taught by great Christians before her—wise, proven, experienced Christian educators—like Blessed John Henry Newman. As such, it was delivered not as a call to traditional Christian education and culture, but as a call away from it. It was an effort to present modern ideas of learning in ancient dress. That, after all, is what the real Dorothy Sayers was all about.
The speech was given 100 years after Blessed John Henry Newman, one of history’s most well-known Anglican clergymen, delivered his truly famous lectures On the Idea of a University, which included a thorough explanation of the principles of elementary education and called for the continuation of classical liberal arts education. Sayers’ speech was delivered in Oxford, home to many of history’s finest classical schools and schoolmasters since the 1300s. However, Sayers did not repeat Newman’s call to continuity, nor did she draw attention to the classical schools that faithfully continued around her. Sayers opposed the traditional philosophy of Christian education and urged the audience to be open to modern ideas of education..
Now, how can such a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” message impress Christians today who are eager to restore classical Christian education? How can Christians—especially Catholic or Anglican Christians—embrace a message that opposes the advice of history’s wisest Catholic teachers? The answer is very simple. Either Christians have never read history’s wisest Catholic teachers or, they too reject them. Assuming the former, rather than the latter is the case, I suppose that modern Christians are impressed by the first half of Sayers’ speech, in which she points out the flaws of modern schools. She hits on a few hot topics like kids studying all sorts of subjects but not really learning anything. When modern Christian readers hear that, they are relieved to find someone telling it like it is. However, being ignorant of the history of Christian education, they falsely assume that because Sayers is able to articulate the problems that she also is fit to recommend the remedy. Yet it is in the remedy that she opposes Christian tradition and those ignorant of it follow her thinking all is well.
Of course, I have to prove this, and I’m not troubled by proving my statements. I will provide you with one simple comparison. Let us first find out what Blessed John Henry Newman taught 100 years before Sayers spoke, so that we can compare her message with his. Then, we can compare the two of them to all of the Church’s great teachers and see who represents Christian or classical education.
BLESSED JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (1801-1890)
If I was to recommend an English author to read on education, it would never be Dorothy Sayers, but Blessed John Henry Newman. He was not a hypocritical career Christian, but an exemplary clergyman and scholar—one of history’s most beloved Christians. He was a leader of the Oxford Movement, which was was probably the holiest and most excellent activity ever undertaken at the university. Later in his life, he converted to Catholicism and eventually became Cardinal Newman. Today his cause is underway for canonization and he was beatified in 2010. John Henry Newman was an experienced scholar, teacher and school founder. In fact, the school he founded, the Oratory School, was open throughout Sayers’ life, produced one of her most famous contemporaries (Hilaire Belloc) and remains open to this day. His most famous work on education was his series of lectures collected and published as The Idea of a University.
Newman explained the problems of modern education with pinpoint precision. I urge you to read the entire quote below carefully—it is golden:
Now, in that analysis, Cardinal Newman explains that the true problem of modern education is that it no longer produces great men—like his student Hilaire Belloc. Today, where study materials are abundant, education is confused with entertainment. Curiosity is wrongly called a desire for learning. While many parents today boldly turn off the television and urge their children to read books, Newman warned that the “pleasurable excitement of book-reading” is no better. The true marks of Christian education identified by Newman are the ability for men to speak well, to demonstrate the errors of false ideas and to move men to do good, the sort of tasks that wise men have historically performed for the Church and for their countries.
Newman doesn’t leave us with a lazy criticism, but goes on to explain the entire system of education that supplies these skills and established the Oratory School as a living example of what was needed. The fundamental argument he makes is that Christians cannot allow the ancient system of the classical liberal arts to be abandoned for modern innovations. Newman explained to the Christians of the 19th century, faced with all the talk of scientific progress, that the duty of Christian educators was to teach the same course of studies that had sustained human civilization through all ages:
Thus, if anything had been lost in education, Newman argued that it was the continuity of the classical liberal arts. These seven liberal arts are the timeless “tools of learning”. Moreover, Newman explained that not only the arts themselves, but the particular books and teachers by whom mankind has been taught through history must be preserved as the books and teachers of the present and future generation. He explains the endless warfare of educational history thus:
Cardinal Newman explained that human civilization and Christian history are inseparable from the classical liberal arts. No other philosophy or program has ever endured but this, and human civilization has soared only in those periods when the classical liberal arts were diligently studied. The reason why all innovations are to be resisted by Christians, is that despite all their promises, they are unproven. Christians are in no need of innovation for they already have a philosophy of education that works.
With this backdrop now in place, we can consider Dorothy Sayers’ message. Yes, she identifies the obvious problems in modern education—but all modern educators are aware of them. Even in the U.S., today the problems are known at every level. Where educators differ is in the remedies they propose. Here, we will see that Dorothy Sayers opposes the remedy prescribed by the wise men of both classical and Christian history. She does not call men to return to a proven path, but to follow her on a new path. Sayers’ philosophy of education is not rooted in the history of Christianity or human civilization, but in her own opinions. She says so herself:
Now, when did Cardinal Newman ever say a word about stages of learning? He spoke of seven liberal arts. Sayers’ ideas are the new and unproven philosophies he warned against—the kind that were filling England when he spoke. Sayers goes on to name her three stages of development as the “Poll-Parrot”, “Pert” and “Poetic”. All of this, realize, is complete nonsense. After reading Newman, can we take her seriously? He spoke in wisdom, demonstrating his views from history and philosophy, while she speaks like a child making up names for her own inventions. When we read her message in light of Cardinal Newman’s message, we can see that there is nothing historical or Christian about Sayers’ teaching at all. The philosophy of education she proposes has nothing to do with the classical Trivium or the Quadrivium that Newman was speaking of. She could care less and makes this plain in her speech, but I fear none read it carefully:
What she is saying then is that if you know anything about the old classical liberal arts that have always been studied, then you can understand her philosophy by how her stages of learning compare with the ancient arts of learning, or how the ancient curriculum can be “adapted” to her ideas. While the ancients studied the classical art of Latin and Greek Grammar as the foundation of all learning, Sayers suggests we replace the old notion of Grammar with the “Poll-Parrot stage”. As Christians had always studied Dialectic or Logic after Grammar, we can replace that art with what she calls the “Pert stage”. Lastly, as the Trivium ended with the study of the art of Rhetoric, we can replace that with the modern notion of a “Poetic stage” of development. Thus, we can embrace the modern psychology-based philosophy of education while using the old terms “Grammar”, “Logic” and “Rhetoric”--no longer as the names of three of the liberal arts, but as the new “classical” names of her stages of psychological development. Now, she says, we can have the modern philosophy, with “classical” dressing. You can be one thing, while appearing to be something else. What a ridiculous mess.
This, my friends, is what the Dorothy Sayers Movement is promoting. It is modern education with artificial “classical” dressing that makes it appear historical and reliable. It will not impress the John Henry Newmans of the world, who know that the ancient philosophy of education is as necessary today and tomorrow as it was at any time in Christian history. It will, however, satisfy the people who don’t know anything about the history of education—and who don’t make an effort to find out. You can oppose the real teachings and customs of Christianity while maintaining an appearance of conformity. Dorothy Sayers understands that well. She is herself an example of one who appears to represent Christianity but is in fact silently opposing it. She and her philosophy of education are wolves in sheep’s clothing—and she knew it was so.
The difference that we find between the teaching of John Henry Newman and Dorothy Sayers is the difference that is to be found between the Classical Liberal Arts Academy and study programs that belong to the Dorothy Sayers Movement. When confronted with these realities, their response has been, “Well, there are different ways of understanding classical education.” That is true, but it does not prove their understanding is correct. There is the way that Cardinal Newman understood it and the way Dorothy Sayers understood it. The problem, however, is that one way was true and rooted in Christian history and one way was a modern invention. One is true and proven and the other is false and silly. You can disagree with Cardinal Newman, but make it plain that you do. Make it plain that you reject the history of classical education and embrace a modern philosophy that, for some inexplicable reason, seeks to dress itself up like a Greek, Roman or medieval Christian idea. It is no surprise that one of these ways is endorsed by saints and philosophers and the other invented by a morally reprehensible feminist.
In the CLAA, we aren’t fighting to maintain our own innovations. We desire wisdom and we believe, as Cardinal Newman said, that classical liberal arts education needs no adaptations or changes. We teach the seven classical liberal arts, using the books that have effectively taught past generations of Christians and that have preserved Christian learning throughout all ages. Other programs are driven by the false notion of learning that Newman warned of—the desire to curiously fly through books and endlessly enter upon new topics, motivated by “pleasurable excitement” rather than true learning. The CLAA does not present new programs and modern textbooks with old fashioned names. We do not call open discussion “the Socratic Method”. We do not read English translations of Greek and Latin books and tell ourselves we are reading “the Classics”. We do not hand our students modern math textbooks and call it “Classical Arithmetic”. We do not refer to high school as the “Rhetoric Stage”, whether or not any of the kids are even learning the art of Rhetoric. We do not post pictures of Aristotle and then follow the teaching of Dorothy Sayers. What these programs are doing, as Sayers taught, is promoting a modern philosophy of education with all kinds of traditional dress. Don’t be fooled by the meaningless use of names and images—that’s the whole point of Dorothy Sayers’ philosophy.
To help you, I will provide a set of checkpoints for you to use in evaluating other “classical” study programs 2.
You can know that a study program is following Dorothy Sayers and not Christian history if, while claiming to be “classical”…
I can assure you that you will find none of the signs of pseudo-classical education in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. The reason for this is that we offer the course of studies recommended not by Dorothy Sayers, but Blessed John Henry Newman, St. Ignatius, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Cicero, Aristotle and all of history’s wise men. I know that hearing this is difficult and that changes that are necessary will take time. Please know that I am available to answer questions you have and if you decide to transition to an authentic classical liberal arts curriculum for you children, we can help you do that. You will find in the CLAA a different spirit, a different focus and a different culture than elsewhere. Venite et videte.
WILLIAM C. MICHAEL
William C. Michael is the founder and director of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He and his wife, Dania are the parents of eight Catholic Christian children and live in rural North Carolina. Mr. Michael serves with the Missionaries of the Poor overseas as a visiting formation instructor and advisor and, in collaboration with the MOP, is soon to open the CLAA's St. Anthony's Charity School--a free boarding school for orphaned and abandoned mission children in his home town of Monroe, NC. Mr. Michael can be contacted by e-mail at the CLAA: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note 1. In a following passage, Newman lists these as: “Music, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Grammar, Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, and Geometry”. His use, then of the word “Logic” is loose and shouldn’t necessarily be associated with what Aristotle called “Analytics”. Both Analytics and Dialectics may be contained under the common name “Logic”, being different kinds of reasoning.
Note 2. Unfortunately, some programs are removing explicit references to Dorothy Sayers, while keeping all of her ideas. This makes the problems even less visible for Christian parents, so be sure to use the checkpoints provided carefully.