Education for slackers

A couple of years ago, I posted an essay about Dorothy Sayers' Lost Tools of Learning. An aspect of her argument that I didn't pull out in that essay, but that struck me at the time, was how unstructured her program of education really was:

Towards the close of this stage [middle school roughly], the pupils will probably be beginning to discover for themselves that their knowledge and experience are insufficient, and that their trained intelligences need a great deal more material to chew upon. The imagination-- usually dormant during the Pert age--will reawaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason. This means that they are passing into the Poetic age and are ready to embark on the study of Rhetoric. The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will. The things once learned by rote will be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analyzed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis; here and there a sudden insight will bring about that most exciting of all discoveries: the realization that truism is true.

It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded. In literature, appreciation should be again allowed to take the lead over destructive criticism; and self-expression in writing can go forward, with its tools now sharpened to cut clean and observe proportion. Any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever. It would be well, I think, that each pupil should learn to do one, or two, subjects really well, while taking a few classes in subsidiary subjects so as to keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge. Indeed, at this stage, our difficulty will be to keep "subjects" apart; for Dialectic will have shown all branches of learning to be inter-related, so Rhetoric will tend to show that all knowledge is one. To show this, and show why it is so, is pre-eminently the task of the mistress science. But whether theology is studied or not, we should at least insist that children who seem inclined to specialize on the mathematical and scientific side should be obliged to attend some lessons in the humanities and vice versa. At this stage, also, the Latin grammar, having done its work, may be dropped for those who prefer to carry on their language studies on the modern side; while those who are likely never to have any great use or aptitude for mathematics might also be allowed to rest, more or less, upon their oars. Generally speaking, whatsoever is mere apparatus may now be allowed to fall into the background, while the trained mind is gradually prepared for specialization in the "subjects" which, when the Trivium is completed, it should be perfectly will equipped to tackle on its own. The final synthesis of the Trivium--the presentation and public defense of the thesis--should be restored in some form; perhaps as a kind of "leaving examination" during the last term at school.

One of the just criticisms of Sayers is that if we followed her method, students would just amble at random through school. Arguably, we did in fact get this result for the vast majority of college students today. What is missing here is the context in which Sayers wrote. Only the upper classes and the very intelligent need the kind of education she proposed. For the intelligent but lazy, a ramble through whatever subjects are interesting can serve as the best method of acquiring the vast store of knowledge that a liberal education requires. I wouldn't argue against the idea that Sayer's concept was unstructured and perhaps even unworkable in general. In particular, however, it might be just the ticket for bright young people who lack conscientiousness.

I ambled at random through the subjects that interested me in college on my own time, and I later found that I had accidentally acquired a much better education than the one the state had attempted to give me. There is an element of luck here, but a more structured approach would simply not have worked.