Sayers: The Centrality of Accuracy
By Gabriel Blanchard
The first priority of education is not teaching students what to think, but how.
A friend of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, and one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University, Dorothy L. Sayers is justly lauded among traditionally-minded educators and parents. Her essay The Lost Tools of Learning is among the seminal documents of the movement. Her articulation of the substance and value of the Trivium is unrivaled, displaying the character, wit, and good sense that she and all the Inklings possessed.
However, this single essay is far from her only claim to our attention. In her day, she was most famous for her detective novels, composed in the tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; moreover, she was a successful playwright and poet, an amateur yet extraordinarily incisive theologian and apologist, and an accomplished translator of Medieval literature: her renditions of the Divine Comedy and the Song of Roland are respected to the present day.
Sayers had a particular talent for relating ideas that seem elevated or abstract in everyday terms, thus showing the relevance they perennially possess. This talent was rooted in her attention to facts and her clear-headed power of analysis, distinguishing between what a given text said, what it implied, and what it might be assumed to imply by a negligent reader.
In the opening chapter of The Mind of the Maker—a brilliant articulation of, simultaneously, the process of artistic creation and the theology of the Trinity, the original Maker—she wrote:
“It is common knowledge among school-teachers that a high percentage of examination failures results from ‘not reading the question.’ The candidate presumably applies his eyes to the paper, but his answer shows that he is incapable by that process of discovering what the question is. This means that he is not only slovenly-minded but, in all except the most superficial sense, illiterate. Teachers further complain that they have to spend a great deal of time and energy in teaching University students what questions to ask. This indicates that the young mind experiences great difficulty in disentangling the essence of a subject from its accidents; and it is disconcertingly evident, in discussions on the platform and in the press, that the majority of people never learn to overcome this difficulty. … They are literate in the merely formal sense—that is, they are capable of putting the symbols C, A, T together to produce the word CAT. But they are not literate in the sense of deriving from those letters any clear mental concept of the animal. Literacy in the formal sense is dangerous since it lays the mind open to receive any mischievous nonsense about cats that an irresponsible writer may choose to print—nonsense which could never have entered the heads of plain illiterates who were familiar with an actual cat, even if unable to spell its name.”
The mental precision Sayers possessed is exactly what the CLT was designed to inculcate; our core values are those of being anchored, passionate, and accurate. Her ability both to exemplify that accuracy and to impart it to her readers is what gives her work its enduring value. She not only laid out the importance of a sound education; she embodied it. In the fight to live and to think well, an exact, attentive mind is the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, for it directs all the others to their ends.