Dorothy Sayers and Charlotte Mason: A Fork in the River of Classical Education – Part 2

river fork

This week I am finishing a two-part blog post that is essentially a comparison of two different streams of classical education philosophy: those of Charlotte Mason and of Dorothy Sayers. I discussed in my last post that Sayers was a famous author and academic extraordinaire with quite a full career. She was a Humanist and a feminist (I mean that in a positive way), and it only seems natural that she wrote some editorial essays like “Are Women Human?” in order to express her thoughts. She was also an expert translator with the ability to work in both classical and modern languages. In fact, she considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy published in the 1940s and ‘50s to be her best translation work.

But, Sayers was not a teacher or a governess or a nanny or even a mother. She had virtually no experience with children and yet a single essay she presented while at Oxford in 1947 made a huge wave in the world of education.  In the essay, she denounced the “modern” mode of education and suggested a return to the classical tradition with special emphasis on The Trivium, which refers to the language arts side of primary and secondary education. In addition to bringing old ideas back to relevance, Sayers’ essay also offered some new ideas based on what she could recall from her own childhood and education. So, you could say, The Lost Tools of Learning is an essay that is one part classical ideas and one part new invention.

The new ideas her essay contributed were the coining of three stages of child development that mirrored the Trivium.

  1. Trivium: Grammar / Sayers: Poll-Parrot
  2. Trivium: Dialectic / Sayers: Pert
  3. Trivium: Rhetoric / Sayers: Poetic


Sayers describes the Poll-Parrot stage (ages 9-11) as a time when children are able to easily memorize words (i.e. poems, songs, etc.) as well as visual shapes but find reasoning difficult. It is during this stage that she says children should be taught the Grammar (language) of the Trivium, especially the root of all romantic languages – Latin (post-classical or mediaeval). Because children at this stage of development are drawn to memorizing songs, Latin declensions could be taught through memorized chant. Sayers’ essay also points out that knowing Latin is relevant in just about every subject, including the learning of foreign languages and especially science. And, if Latin is not studied, she says two runners up would be Russian or Classical Greek because they are both root languages.

In contrast to Sayers’ Poll-Parrot take on Grammar education, Charlotte Mason emphasized the learning of language through reading living books – an extensive exposure to language rather than relying on memorization. Although Mason also thought learning Latin was important, her students began learning Latin in Form II, which is roughly 4th grade, because she wanted them to learn skills in what she considered their natural context. She wanted her students to learn Latin so they could immediately begin to read original texts in Latin (emphasis mine).

In addition to the learning of language (through memorization), Sayers’ essay also says children in the Poll-Parrot stage are good at making observations. In fact, Sayers said memorization and observation are the two main occupations of this stage. Subjects beyond language that children in the Poll-Parrot stage should learn include history through the familiarization of dates, events, anecdotes, and personalities; geography with the aid of maps, natural features, and visual presentment of customs and of states and capitals, etc.; science through observation and classification; and mathematics by memorizing facts and learning shapes. Admittedly, these subjects were already being taught in 20th century English schools, but Sayers insists that the attitude of their teachers must be that of preparing students for the next stage of education, the Pert / Dialectic stage. This preparation was to be done by the extensive memorizing of facts. Sayers’ essay says of Poll-Parrot memorization:

What that material is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can be usefully committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not.

This is another stark contrast to the teaching of Charlotte Mason who emphasizes the synthesizing of information – making connections – over rote memorization. Mason said in her 12th principle that education is the science of relations wherein children are capable of connecting knowledge with experience:

“Education is the science of relations” means that children have minds capable of making their own connections with knowledge and experiences, so we make sure the child learns about nature, science and art, knows how to make things, reads many living books and that they are physically fit. (Laurio paraphrase, 2004)

Sayers, on the other hand, said in her essay that children are not capable of understanding or coming up with rational explanations.

Mason did teach that students should commit some information to memory, but that information would be immediately relevant to the children and enhance their wonder and appreciation of beauty (i.e. not the periodic table in 3rd grade). For example, her students memorized poetry. In our home, as part of our Bible teaching, my young students have memorized the books of the Bible, the names of the 12 disciples, short passages of scripture, and are working towards memorizing the Apostles Creed. This is beautiful and / or immediately relevant information for young Bible students. Not only are they memorizing facts, but also they are applying the information in their studies. With my Year 3 student, I can now hand him his Bible and have him look up the scripture passage for the day. Often I hear him singing the bible books song we learned to help him find the passage. This is like me trying to alphabetize something and singing the ABCs song (in my head, of course!).


Sayers describes the Pert stage (ages 12-14) as a time when a child naturally wants to contradict and argue, especially with those in authority. Although this stage can overlap with the Poll-Parrot stage, the Pert stage generally happens during “middle school” years. [As a “fun” aside, I have a child who seems to have been in this arguing stage his entire life. Yea, me.] Similar to how memorization and observation were stressed in the Poll-Parrot stage, in the Pert stage Sayers would have teacher focus on teaching formal logic (how to argue). Sayers said in her essay that teachers of her day were failing to teach logic.

Just as all subjects were utilized to teach memorization and observation in the first stage, in this second stage Sayers would have all subjects – including math, history, etc. – contribute towards a student’s understanding of logic. And, her logical (see what I did there?) reason why students at this age should learn logic is because they are naturally drawn to argumentativeness.

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands. It may, indeed, be rather less obtrusive at home if it is disciplined in school; and anyhow, elders who have abandoned the wholesome principle that children should be seen and not heard have no one to blame but themselves.

 By contrast, Charlotte Mason would encourage children of this age to continue synthesizing information (making connections) rather than analyzing (taking apart) information. I dare say she would label the above description of behavior as a bad habit rather than give a child over to their argumentative ways, and under no circumstances can I imagine Mason labeling a child as “intolerable” (although I can think of a time when I have – hehe).

Once children of the Pert stage realize that “their knowledge and experience are insufficient,” Sayers says they will reawaken their dormant imagination and be ready to study rhetoric – to once again be ready to synthesize information.


The Poetic stage (ages 15-18) is described by Sayers as a time when children are self-centered, yearn to express themselves, want independence, and relish being misunderstood (teenage years). It’s also the time when most students begin to discover real creativity and finally see the big picture of their education – and perhaps begin to show a preference to a certain field of knowledge. During this stage, “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.”

Sayers says the Poetic stage is a time when students stop analyzing and once again allow themselves to appreciate ideas. This is another divergence from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Prior to the high school years, CM would have students always synthesizing, always observing, and always appreciating. Then, during the high school years she would allow that students begin to analyze (deconstruct) what they are learning. I believe the idea here is that it’s difficult to appreciate something you are currently tearing apart, and it’s difficult to truly deconstruct an idea before you understand where it fits into the world – in relation with all other ideas.

Interestingly, although there is quite a departure between Sayers’ essay and CM’s writings over the course of a child’s education, both women write that during the high school years students should be allowed to specialize in one field over others and even discontinue studies that are not interesting. Both, for example, concede that a student who is not interested in math might leave off with math studies (I love math, so I just died a little inside to think of any of my children not learning calculus.) They both also encourage students to choose one foreign language in which to specialize.

The Benediction

At the end of her essay, Sayers gives recommendations for how teachers should be trained. She gives a warning against in-fighting amongst teachers of different subjects. She also says teachers should be trained to see the big picture of a student’s life by being trained to teach all three stages. For example, an elementary school teacher should also have experience teaching on the high school level at the same school. I can’t help but bring to mind the homeschool co-op where I teach one day a week. My main teaching class is a high school writing class, but I also help out in elementary and middle school classes. I definitely agree with Sayers’ thoughts here. It is great to teach the young ones knowing where they are headed – and to teach the older students knowing from where they have developed. Of course, this plays out in the homeschool family as well. Teaching my oldest has been the single best preparation for teaching my younger two.

In her closing thoughts, Sayers issues a warning about how many people writing books and educating our children (this was in her day) are, themselves, the first real generation of uneducated people. Today some 70 years later, I feel that warning magnified.

We have lost the tools of learning–the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane– that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or “looks to the end of the work.”

A Final Comparison of Sayers and Mason

Even though a comparison of Dorothy Sayers’ one essay and Charlotte Mason’s volumes of writing based on a lifetime of effort is truly unfair (after all, Sayers only got in about 8,000 words), I find myself making comparisons of the two based on the lasting effects of both woman’s lives.

I have taken the time to read Sayers’ essay, but I have not truly studied the movement that has followed in its wake. I know of the brand name Classical Conversations and its catalog of products. I know families who participate in various forms and understandings of classical education, and I’ve had homeschool moms ask me whether the ideas of Sayers and Mason line up (e.g. “Can my family ‘do’ Charlotte Mason and also participate in Classical Conversations?”)

The last time I was asked that question, I described these two versions of classical education as two streams that branched off the same river. They have a common tributary, but they have become two different rivers. In basic theory they may be quite similar, but in practice they have become very different. But, I do believe they share an idea that makes the CCer and the CMer comrades – “For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach [people] how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain” (Sayers). This is a statement with which I’m certain Mason would wholeheartedly agree.

Until we meet again in two weeks, be well.

I’m reading:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:




3 thoughts on “Dorothy Sayers and Charlotte Mason: A Fork in the River of Classical Education – Part 2

  1. I wrote a response to another blogger’s post (titled “Charlotte Mason Meets Dorothy Sayers”) that grossly misrepresented both Mason and Sayers’ contributions to modern classical education. My response felt so succinct (and disagreed so much with the blogger that I doubt he allows the comment), that I thought I’d share it here. It feels almost like a summary of what I was trying to say in this two-part series.

    Although it’s true that Mason did not identify her own philosophy as “classical,” it is my opinion (as well Clark and Jain’s, whom you mention in your article) that her methods are completely in line with the classical tradition. The reason Mason adds to the classical tradition with her own “progressive” philosophy (“A child is a born person,” etc.) is in response to prevailing psychology of her day (hereditary determinism, “blank slate,” to name a couple). Sayers, on the other hand, in her one essay on education (The Lost Tools of Learning) does self-identify with the classical tradition — and no doubt she herself was educated classically — but does not succeed in accurately describing the classical model in her mere 8,500 (approx) words. Neither Mason nor Sayers completely adheres to ancient or medieval descriptions of classical education. Instead, each present their own 19th/20th century versions of the classical tradition. I highly respect both women, but I don’t think it’s fair to label either one as “more classical” since each has taken their own liberties. And, as a writer, I personally would not want 8,500 of of the millions of words I’ve written and shared with the public in my lifetime to be my only legacy.


  2. Not only did the blogger you mentioned above allow your comment, he replied to it…quite articulately and respectfully. I think many would be interested to read your responses to the questions he posed to you in that reply.


    1. Liz,
      I saw his reply, and I’m very excited and encouraged that he allowed the comment and has engaged me in a dialog. I only reposted my comment here b/c I didn’t want my paragraph to be lost in cyberspace. I felt like it summarized what I had been trying to accomplish in my two-part series on Mason & Sayers. For the record, I don’t know Art (the blogger) at all, but I have a feeling he and I are going to have a great conversation. That said, it’s going to take me a little time to formulate a thoughtful response. Right now I have three boys looking at me, like, “When are we starting circle time already?” Stay tuned! However it goes down, I’ll be sure to link it back to my own blog.


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