Written by Martin Cothran & Cheryl Lowe, this article was first published in The Classical Teacher, 2010. Reproduced here with permission.

We live in the aftermath of a cultural shipwreck, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the field of education. Our schools cast about for solutions to their educational woes, and they find, here and there, pieces of the system of classical education that once ruled the educational waves. The result has been the expeditious rise and fall of various education reforms, each of which, because it is only a piece of the wreck and not the whole ship, cannot bear the weight we would place on it. The classical education movement itself suffers from a fractured vision. We too need a fuller understanding of what classical education is.

In its traditional usage, the term “classical education” had a widely agreed upon definition which everyone who was familiar with education would have known. Before the middle of the 20th century, any educator or informed parent would have known what classical education was, but that knowledge has been lost. Only in recent decades have Christian educators begun to put the pieces back together again.

Dorothy Sayers’ Psychological Paradigm

What we now call “classical education” derives from the republication of a Dorothy Sayers essay in the 1990s. In 1947, Sayers gave a speech to students studying education at Oxford during a vacation term titled, “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning,” a speech which, when republished later in the 20th century, became a rallying cry for thousands of classical home and private schools across the country. At the time, however, it went unnoticed except by the aspiring British educators who happened to be in the room. Sayers was most famous for her works of detective fiction, having created the popular Lord Peter Wimsey, but she was also notable for her well-regarded translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works of classical scholarship. She was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford, and she had also become known for her explicitly Christian essays on theological and literary topics, an interest she shared with her friends C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Sayers began her speech by telling the students that she had not much hope that her recommendations about education would ever make any difference. “Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment.” Why was she so pessimistic? Her dim view of the prospects of her proposed reforms was largely due to the fact that they were not new. In fact, they were quite old:

[W]e must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.

She could have offered no better argument to her audience that day for her pessimism, inured as they must have been even then to the faddishness of the education profession, in which the newest and trendiest nostrums are received and implemented enthusiastically on one day, and abandoned the next without any noticeable difference in what they were designed to improve. Turn the clock back? It must have sounded like heresy.

The underlying problem, she said, was a narrow focus on subjects, and a neglect of training in thinking skills:

Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that 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.

Sayers appealed to the first three of the seven liberal arts:

  1. Grammar
  2. Logic
  3. Rhetoric

These three arts, or skills, have traditionally been called the “Trivium,” a term which, in Latin, means “the three ways.” It is these “three ways” that were given a new life over the last two decades thanks to Sayers’ essay. Whereas the Trivium had traditionally been seen as a simple listing of the three liberal arts related to language, Sayers talked of them as “stages of development” that characterized the process of learning. There was a grammar stage, which Sayers called the “Poll-Parrot,” a logic stage she called the “Pert,” and a rhetoric stage she called the “Poetic.”

The “Poll-Parrot” stage, which roughly approximates the primary school years until about the 6th grade, emphasizes observation and memorization (hence the reference to parrots). It is the stage at which children like memorizing things and repeating them. The second, “Pert,” or “logic,” stage begins when children start to contest and argue, to engage in discursive reasoning. Whereas the grammar stage might be called the knowledge stage, this is the analytic stage. Logic is the language of the “Pert” stage. It focuses on the study of the process of argumentation. Then comes the rhetoric, or “Poetic,” stage. “The imagination,” said Sayers, “usually dormant during the Pert stage —will reawaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason.” Whereas memorization is the dominant mode in the grammar stage, and analysis in the logic stage, synthesis is the dominant mode in the rhetoric stage.

There is a “grammar” of the subjects themselves, by which a student studies their rudimentary facts and procedures. There is also a “logic” of subjects, by which a student studies their basic structure. Finally, there is a “rhetoric” of subjects, by which a student starts to see the integration between the various disciplines.

From Sayers’ obscure speech that she herself predicted would go unheeded, a movement was born. Douglas Wilson’s book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning in particular sparked a veritable revolution in home and private schooling. The popularity of the book quickly resulted in the formation of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, which was founded in 1994. The ACCS today has over 232 member schools. Other organizations followed in ACCS’s train. The Society for Classical Learning, which was founded in 1998, also serves mostly classical schools and their staff with a membership of close to 900 individual teachers and other school professionals. The CiRCE Institute was founded in 1996 to provide teacher training and an annual conference. It is estimated that the number of classical schools nationwide is now in the thousands, and the number of homeschool families using various versions of classical education is anyone’s guess.

In the wake of Wilson’s book have come other books, most notably The Well-Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer, a professor at William & Mary, where she has taught since 1994. The Well-Trained Mind, published in 1999, bears the obvious influence of Wilson’s book and explicitly articulates the principles found in Sayers’ speech. Bauer’s chapters explaining Sayers’ method are followed by curriculum recommendations for each of the three “stages”—Latin, logic, and rhetoric—and she gives parents specific recommendations on courses and programs to use with their homeschool students. Bauer’s book—and the books she has written since, which are published by W. W. Norton & Company (the publisher of the widely used Norton Anthologies of Literature) have brought the Trivium concept to the masses.

What is it so many parents and private educators have found in these articulations of Sayers’ principles that is so appealing? In a certain sense, we could say that the reasons it shouldn’t have been popular are the very reasons it has become popular: it wasn’t new, it was old; it didn’t come from “what studies show,” it came from one uncredentialed scholar’s critical reflection on how human beings actually learn; it had none of the trappings that accompany great innovations; it was a simple observation simply stated. Sayers’ model has become popular because of what she said and how she said it. The sheer simplicity of Sayers’ insight cut through all of the complicated and counterproductive jargon of the professional education class.


Dominant Mode

Language (skill) Emphasis

Subject (content) Emphasis

(Ages 9-11)


The study of Latin:

  • Vocabulary

  • Grammatical paradigms

The Grammar of Subjects:

  • English: memorization & recitation of verse & prose
  • Geography: facts, maps, customs, costumes, flora, fauna
  • Science: names & properties of things

  • Math: multiplication tables, recognition of geometrical shapes, grouping of numbers, simple sums
  • Religion: narrative of Creation, Rebellion, and Redemption; Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments

(Ages 12-14)


The study of Logic:

  • Terms
  • Propositions
  • Arguments
  • Proper use of libraries and books for research

The Logic of Subjects:

  • English: narrative stories, lyric poetry, prose essays; argument & criticism
  • History: critical reflection on ethics & rationality of actions of historical figures, consequences of those actions, arguments for & against forms of government
  • Geography: evolution of cultures and economies, how customs change over time
  • Science: complex aspects of botany, zoology, and astronomy
  • Math: algebra, geometry, advanced arithmetic
  • Religion: connection between religious dogma and the ethics of human actions

(Ages 15-16)


The study of Rhetoric:

  • Public presentation and defense of the thesis
The Rhetoric of Subjects:

  • General integration of subjects

She not only spoke about memorization; she spoke about it memorably: “Poll-Parrot,” “Pert,” and “Poetic”—it is something that you might expect to hear chanted in the grammar stage.

Even though her speech was given to a hall full of aspiring professionals, what Sayers said and the way she said it spoke directly to the nonprofessional who knows something is wrong with schools but doesn’t have the philosophical equipment to know how to fashion an alternative. It was an educational philosophy in three words and it provided a rationale for doing all the things that common sense educators have always known children needed to do: memorizing important math facts, reciting literature and poetry from memory, learning how to decode words. She heeded Samuel Johnson’s maxim that people need much more to be reminded than informed.

Sayers’ insight was, by her own admission, a psychological one. It was a developmental reinterpretation of the traditional liberal arts. Originally, the liberal arts were considered simply to be generalizable intellectual skills: skills that applied to any academic subject. The Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—was made up of the broad linguistic skills. Sayers, on the other hand, uses the Trivium sequence as a way to articulate the psychological insight that a child’s learning process proceeds in stages, each of which lends itself to a certain particular kind of skill development. Sayers’ genius was to take a classification of skills and turn it into a clear, useful, and attractive developmental method that can be used to teach those skills. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on education reform, and the professionals have yet to match it.

The Great Books Movement

Another movement that came out of the educational wreckage that resulted from the abandonment of classical education in the early 20th century was the Great Books movement. When many people hear the term “classical education,” they think of the classics—the great literary works of Western civilization. Much of the modern consciousness of the Great Books comes from the efforts of one man: Mortimer J. Adler. After quitting school at the age of 14, he later went back to Columbia University, where he eventually earned his doctorate in psychology. But his chief interest was in philosophy and Western literature. Through his friendship with Robert Hutchins, who went on to become the president of the University of Chicago, Adler was hired. Later the two founded the Great Books Foundation. Adler also began serving on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1949. He directed the Encyclopedia’s publication of the Great Books of the Western World series in 1952. Adler’s own philosophy was shaped by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and by the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, who used many of Aristotle’s ideas in his great synthesis of Christian philosophy. In 1965, Adler completely reorganized the Encyclopedia according to these philosophical principles. He later became the Encyclopedia’s executive editor.

Adler never received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, however, since he did not pass a required swimming course in his senior year. So, after leading the Great Books movement, heading the most widely respected encyclopedia in the world, and directing the Great Books project—one of the great literary projects of all time—the university finally invited him back in 1983 and gave him his bachelor’s degree.

Adler’s influence on education in America came in four ways. The first was his involvement in the Great Books movement, which resulted in countless Great Books discussion groups in libraries and schools across the country, and in the formation of several Great Books colleges, including St. Johns College, Shimer College, and St. Thomas Aquinas College. The second was his involvement as the driving force behind the Paideia Proposal, an educational manifesto in which Adler, along with the great humanist scholar Jacques Barzun and education reformer Ted Sizer, championed a broad non-vocational liberal arts education that used all three teaching techniques—lecture, coaching, and the Socratic method. Third, Adler reached a broad public with his traditional approach to great ideas in the popular PBS series “Six Great Ideas,” a series of interviews with journalist Bill Moyers which ran repeatedly on public televisions nationwide in the 1990s. Finally, his popular books on philosophy and the great ideas took the great literary and philosophical tradition of the West to the larger public. Bestselling books such as Six Great Ideas and Ten Philosophical Mistakes exploded the idea that the reading public was uninterested in substantive ideas.

While Adler championed a well-defined set of books and ideas, there have been other attempts to address the question of what children should know. The most widely known may be the core knowledge movement started by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Hirsch was a professor who was largely unknown outside of academic circles, whose chief claim to fame inside the somewhat isolated academic community was his scholarly work on the Romantic poets and his theory of hermeneutics (how to interpret texts) in which he argued that the author’s intention is the chief consideration in determining the meaning of a book. Not much for the average person to write home about. But that was before he wrote Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which shocked the publishing industry in 1987 when it became a massive bestseller. Much of the discussion about his book in magazines and on television was over the question of how such a book could have become popular in the first place. He followed this book up with the Core Knowledge books (What Your 1st Grader Needs to Know, etc.), which are now familiar to many parents and teachers.

In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch argued that in order for children to succeed academically, they have to have a fund of what he calls “background knowledge,” a set of facts that allows them to understand the allusions made in the books they are expected to read. Hirsch argued that although phonics is necessary for facility in reading, so is a background knowledge. If a child is given an article about the Civil War, for example, and the article contains unexplained references to “Lee” and “Grant,” the child may well know how to decode the words in the article, and therefore, he will know how to “read” it. But if he does not know that “Lee” is Robert E. Lee, the Commanding General of the Confederate Army, and “Grant” is Ulysses S. Grant, the Commanding General of the Union Army, it will be very hard for the child to make any sense of it. And the more such facts the child doesn’t know, the less able he will be to “read” in the full sense of the term, which would include actually understanding what he or she is reading.

Adler’s influence, great as it was in the 1980s and 90s, has suffered in his absence after his death at 98 years old in 2001. The Great Books Foundation has strayed from the original vision of Adler and Hutchins; the Paideia program, although it has a number of member “Paideia” schools, has in part been co-opted by the public school establishment; and countless sets of the Great Books of the Western World series languish on the nation’s bookshelves unread. While Sayers’ influence has waxed in the last few decades, Adler’s influence is already waning. Hirsch too, despite the continuing sales of his books, has had a rather limited influence on what schools actually do. The core knowledge concept has suffered from the inability of public schools to maintain any meaningful reform.

The insights of both Adler and Hirsch have brought the nation’s attention back to certain basic educational truths, and yet neither went quite far enough. When their ideas brought them finally to the place from which they could cross over into the educational Promised Land, they hedged. Adler championed the Great Books, but his manner of studying them differs markedly from the classical education which he was trying to preserve. When it came to the question of learning the classical languages in which the books he championed were written, he apparently dismissed it as unnecessary or unrealistic. While Adler was right in believing that we could benefit from the widely available English translations of the works of the Greeks and Romans, his exclusive concern that children know the content of these works seemed to preclude an awareness of the significant benefits that came with studying the languages that brought them to us.
Hirsch champions the laudable goal of restoring content to American education but does not address the important formative skills that constitute the liberal arts. Hirsch is concerned almost exclusively with the idea that knowledge needs to be shared. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the shared knowledge serves to pass on Western culture. Both Adler and Hirsch have rediscovered important pieces of the wreck, but more work needs to be done to put the whole classical education ship back together.

What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that the movement that was considered by some to be the most impractical, the one that demanded the sometimes difficult learning of classical languages, the one that seems, in retrospect, to be the least likely one to have been tried at all, has surpassed those ideas that looked more promising. Unlike Adler and Hirsch, Sayers never founded a movement to promote her educational philosophy. She never appeared on television and radio to promote her idea of how schools should be changed. In fact, although her essay later appeared in two relatively obscure collections, she never took the trouble to expand her ideas into a full-length treatise. That a British writer of detective stories, whose speech went virtually unnoticed at the time, would have had an impact on education reform greater than the leader of the Great Books movement and the head of the cultural literacy movement will surely be accounted as one of the great ironies of American educational history.

Why did this happen? The reading of the Great Books is an abstract and lofty goal, but it does little to address what is so lacking in modern education: discipline and structure. Although it looks harder to learn classical languages than it is to simply read a translation, there is something missed by taking shortcuts to great ideas. Handing a student a copy of the Iliad sounds like a noble thing, but what has been done to prepare the child’s mind to read it? What Sayers realized was that there are mental skills whose acquisition is essential if we really want children to be able to understand what they read.

Learning Latin, though difficult, is a finite goal, one that can be accomplished in a set amount of time, and one that contains within its own inherent structure the outline of how it should be taught. It is far from being, as Adler thought, a practical impossibility. The dismissal of classical languages in favor of translations does not make the reading of the Great Books easier. In fact, the mental skills acquired by learning Latin are the best preparation for the rigors of reading classic literature.

But even Sayers’ Trivium approach, practiced in isolation, can become one more piece of flotsam, adrift in the educational sea, striving to be something it is not. Sayers herself was soaked and steeped in classical literature. The fact that she did not say much about it in her 1947 address should not be taken as an indication that she did not think it was essential to her purpose. More likely, she simply assumed that her audience would know that this was what schools were for. Today, however, we can no longer assume this. Not only is the culture of the Christian West being ignored, it is being actively undermined in many of our educational institutions. Only with a return to the old system of classical education—with its emphasis on both the thinking skills requisite for learning and the great works of Western civilization—will we ever right the ship and set it on the course of learning once again.

This article was first published in The Classical Teacher, 2010. Reproduced here with permission.

Cheryl Lowe is the founder of Highlands Latin School and Memoria Press, as well as the author of the acclaimed Latina Christina and First Form Latin series.

Martin Cothran is the editor of the Classical Teacher and the author of Traditional Logic I & Traditional Logic II, Material Logic, Classical Rhetoric, and Lingua Biblica, published by Memoria Press.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *