[From a few years ago. . .]
As I had mentioned in a previous post, I’m heading to Indianapolis this weekend for a conference on the meaning of liberty and education. One of the finest books I’ve come across in preparation for this colloquium is Liberty Funds on 1973 book, Education in a Free Society. The book concludes with Dorothy Sayers classic piece, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Originally written at the beginning of the Cold War and delivered at Oxford, Sayers’s piece has as much to tell us now—if not more–than it did in the 1940s.
As Sayers believes it, western civilization was in slow decline, in large part, because it relied so heavily on the educational inheritance of previous generations. But, it was using up that inheritance as quickly as possible, approaching the point of its complete disintegration.
“Many people today who were atheist or agnostic and religion, are governed in their conduct by a code of Christian ethics which is so rooted in their unconscious assumptions that it never occurs to them to question it. But one cannot live on capital for ever. A tradition, however firmly rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies.”
Like other Christian humanist critics of the time, especially Albert Jay Nock, Romano Guardini, and Christopher Dawson, Sayers worried that with the declining importance of the liberal arts, not only would education become compartmentalized into a variety of “subjects,” but that those educated in such a system would take their own subjective preferences into society itself. Consequently, a man might know much—that is, he might know an outrageous number of facts—about a thing, but he would be unable to place that thing into a larger and important context. In other words, he would prefer the particular to the universal, perhaps not even knowing a universal existed. One might consider this educated man incredibly knowledgeable, but no one would mistake him for being wise.