Dorothy Sayers and Charlotte Mason: A Fork in the River of Classical Education


I get asked sometimes what the major difference is between a classical style of education and a Charlotte Mason style of education, and my standard reply is that CM is one version of the classical tradition. If you imagine classical education as a river flowing through time from ancient Greece down through the middle ages and into Victorian / Edwardian England, you find that it branches off into two directions (more, but let’s keep it simple here). One direction takes you down the path of Charlotte Mason, a trained teacher who spent her life working with students and training teachers in order to purposefully alter the way children are taught. The other direction takes you to a woman named Dorothy Sayers who inadvertently sparked an education movement with one essay.

Who was Dorothy Sayers?

If you look her up on Google, you’ll see that Sayers was foremost a writer of mystery novels. Her most popular works are a series of novels set in the time between WWI and WWII about an amateur sleuth and English aristocrat named Lord Peter Wimsey.  Sayers was also a playwright, poet, essayist, and translator / linguist (she studied classical languages from an early age). She was also a good friend of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other members of the Inklings. They were all writers, so they read each other’s works and offered constructive criticism at the Eagle and Child pub (aka the Bird and Baby). Oh to be a fly on the wall!

Sayers also identified herself as a “Christian Humanist.” Humanism, as I understand it, is a big ‘ol can of worms that I am not about to unpack right here, but it’s suffice to say that Sayers (and other modern humanists) believe people have a right to be treated with dignity and to achieve happiness and that such ideas are in line with the teachings of Christ. Again, I’m not going to argue or heavily research Humanism, but I do think it’s noteworthy that she held these views because she was also what I would call a “feminist” in the truest sense of the word. She believed that women were first of all human and that men and women should essentially be treated the same.

My point here is that Sayers was a brilliant woman whose talent was somewhat (although certainly not completely) recognized in late 19th and early 20th century England. As a writer myself, I’m star struck at her accomplishments. Sayers was not only a prolific author, but she also rubbed elbows with some big names. She helped form The Detection Club, a group of British writers, where she hung out with (and sometimes collaborated writing with) Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, A.A. Milne, and other notable Brits. The club still meets to this day, and the late P.D. James (she wrote Death Comes to Pemberley) was a member. Pretty prestigious!

But, out of all of this trivia, I have noticed one important detail – Sayers was not a teacher and did not study children or education. She was married – twice I believe – and she secretly give birth to a son whom she did not raise (her sister raised him as her own), but other than that she was also not a mother. I find it interesting that Sayers has so influenced the realm of modern education philosophy because – as brilliant and forward thinking as she was – she only wrote one brief essay about education called The Lost Tools of Learning. It was published in in 1948.

The Lost Tools of Learning

Sayers’ essay begins with an admission that she is not a teacher and may not be the most qualified person to be writing an article on education. But, as an educated person and an adult, she feels she has the right to an opinion. She goes on to say that she is worried about the youth of “today” (remember: 1948, England) because the education system is failing them. Sayers criticizes modern education:

… although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.

As a solution, Sayers calls for a return to the education of the Middle Ages – classical education – and she proceeds to discuss the elements of such a method. The Trivium, which she says is intended to teach students how to properly use the tools of learning, is the focus of her discussion.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Trivium, you can read my recent post about it. Basically, the Trivium is the language arts side of primary and secondary education. It comprises three of the Seven Liberal Arts of the classical tradition as laid out by ancient Greeks, refined by medieval Christians, and passed down to the modern era. The Trivium’s counterpart is the Quadrivium, which covers the remaining four of the Seven Liberal Arts: arithmetic (numbers), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (numbers in space and time). A good book for further reading on this subject is Ravi Jain and Kevin Clark’s The Liberal Arts Tradition. Sayer’s essay only focuses on the Trivium, and she describes its three stages.

Grammar is the first stage of the Trivium, and in her essay Sayers describes this as the stage when students learn language structure – what language is, how it is put together, and how it works. Language, she says, is important because it’s the medium in which thoughts are expressed. Some people (Sayers included) interpret the Grammar stage to mean primarily language mechanics, but in Charlotte Mason’s school, children at this age were learning language holistically through extensive reading, not through grammar drills.

After the Grammar stage, Sayers describes the Dialectic stage. Building upon the Grammar stage, this second stage is when students learn how to use language by constructing arguments, detecting fallacies, and using logic (aka debating). The third stage, the Rhetorical stage, is when students learn to express their thoughts elegantly and persuasively through language. Just in case you are confused here, Sayers did not invent the Trivium. In this essay she was simply calling for a return to teaching in the classical style, which includes the Trivium.

In addition to describing the Trivium, Sayers in this essay repeatedly criticizes modern education for segmenting learning into “subjects” rather than teaching students holistically. For example, she says language structure is only taught in foreign language class and debate is taught as an afterschool club. She also admonishes modern culture for all of the meaningless communication and endless advertisements that barrage us with empty words. One of my takeaway ideas here is that if you didn’t know this was published in the ‘40s and you removed some British culture references, this could easily read as an attack on the U.S. culture and school system of today. Sayer’s essay suggests a bold idea: Education should return to its classical roots in order to reverse an error – except, of course, that the feminist in her wants girls in the classroom too (not the case in ancient or medieval times).

At this point in her essay is where Sayers’ does introduce new ideas: She calls for a modern Trivium “with modifications” to be taught from a young age, starting when a child is able to read, write, and cipher. After reminding the reader that she has no experience with children and can only look back on her own childhood for enlightenment, Dorothy Sayers invents three stages of child development that coincide with the Trivium. Those three stages are called Poll-Parrot, Pert, and Poetic. I will discuss those stages (and the rest of her essay) and how they sparked their own stream of education philosophy in my next blog.

Until we meet again in two weeks, be well.

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:



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