Charlotte Mason Meets Dorothy Sayers

Charlotte Mason Meets Dorothy Sayers

According to Michael Sacasas, in an article published by the CiRCE Institute, “Dorothy Sayers’ little essay, ‘The Lost Tools of Learning,’ is something of a foundational text for the modern classical education movement.” Sayers (1893-1957) was an English writer, best known for her mystery novels and short stories. However, in 1947 she delivered a lecture at Oxford to which “the modern resurgence of classical education can be attributed” (source). This lecture, entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” claimed that “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn.”

Modern Christian Classical Education (CCE) theorists speak favorably of Sayers and her essay. For example, Clark and Jain, in The Liberal Arts Tradition, write, “The Christian classical renewal is indebted to the insights Dorothy Sayers enumerated in her famous essay ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’…” Clark and Jain refer to “Dorothy Sayers’s brilliant insight into the essence of grammar.” Christopher Perrin cites the insight that “inspired Dorothy Sayers to refer to the Trivium subjects as ‘tools of learning,’ a metaphor that has become prevalent among classical educators.” Similarly, Andrew Kern writes:

Organon is Greek for instrument or tool. We get organ from it. When Dorothy Sayers referred to the Lost Tools of Learning this is the thing she was referring to, or at least this is the beginning of the tradition that identified tools of learning as the foundation of all learning.

Even those who locate Charlotte Mason’s ideas within the classical tradition point to the influence of Sayers. For example, Cindy Rollins writes, “I have never wavered in my conviction that Charlotte Mason’s ideals were, in fact, the same ideas buried deeply in the principles of a truly classical education.” But in speaking of Sayers, Rollins writes, “Modern Christian and Classical education has been highly influenced by Dorothy Sayers’ essay ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’.” If Rollins is correct that Mason’s ideas are “the principles of a truly classical education,” then one would expect to find some resonance between Mason and Sayers, given that Sayers is credited with the “foundational text for the modern classical education movement.”

What would Mason have said about Sayers’ essay? Sadly, we will never know, since Mason died 24 years before Sayers delivered her lecture at Oxford. However, the PNEU did not end with Mason’s death. We can look at what the inheritors of Mason’s legacy wrote about Sayers. We will begin this survey with Karen Andreola, an early revivalist of Mason’s ideas, and then move backward in time. In 1998, Andreola wrote:

A true intellectual life is not achieved by exercising children’s minds as if they were nothing but memory machines. This is where Charlotte’s method is in disagreement with Dorothy Sayers’ strong emphasis on memory work in the early grades. Unlike Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte spent all her grown life with children, observing them and teaching them, always refining and reforming education for the children’s sake. (A Charlotte Mason Companion, p. 43)

Rather than identifying Sayers and Mason as kindred souls, Andreola carefully distinguishes the two theorists as regards to both their method and their source of guidance. Andreola insists that Mason’s view of the child as person proscribes Sayers’ program of memorization. Furthermore, Andreola notes that Mason derived large portions of her method from her direct observation of children, as opposed to Sayers, who derived her ideas from the traditions of the classical past.

We continue our survey back in time to John Thorley, the final Principal of the Charlotte Mason College. Although I am not aware of any reference to Sayers by Thorley, he was an historian of Charlotte Mason and did locate Mason within the history of educational ideas. In 1989, he wrote:

In [Mason’s theory of education] one can certainly see the influence of other educational thinkers of the nineteenth century, particularly the child-centered views of Pestalozzi and the artistic ideas of John Ruskin. What Charlotte Mason added was a practical, down-to-earth perspective that showed how one could actually set about and do it.

Rather than connecting Mason with classical theorists, Thorley instead identified affinities between Mason and Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a Swiss educational reformer in the Romantic tradition. (Ruskin may also be classified as a Romantic.)

Continuing back to 1965, we note a pamphlet written by E.M. Till entitled “Characteristics of a P.N.E.U. School.” Till wrote the pamphlet to help parents quickly grasp the essentials of Mason’s theory of education. In the closing paragraph, Till emphasized:

… we should remember that Charlotte Mason was a progressive thinker who devoted her life to children, and who believed that to be adequate, a method of education should ‘touch at all points the living thought of the age’ … (PR76:37)

Till did not identify Mason as someone seeking to recover lost tools and insights from the classical era or from the middle ages. Rather, Till referred to Mason to as a progressive. Till correctly observed that Mason derived her insights from lifetime of observation and from the scientific thought of her day.

Moving farther back in time, we reach 1949. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how PNEU thinkers received Sayers’ essay when she first delivered it at Oxford in 1947? Thanks to the Parents’ Review, we can know! The March, 1949 issue includes this fascinating snippet:


I find this review interesting because of the somewhat cool reception it reveals. If Sayers and Mason were speaking of the same classical ideal, wouldn’t some kind of affinity have been noted by the reviewer? Instead, the writer carefully distances Sayers’ method from the PNEU method. The writer explains that Sayers “would propose” “her own … method of eduction”; this is no rediscovery or rehashing of a set of principles already identified by Mason. The writer notes that Sayers’ ideas are “controversial.” But if these ideas resonate with PNEU thought, wouldn’t these ideas be welcomed as “brilliant” as per Clark and Jain?

The writer notes a key distinguishing feature Sayers’ methodology: “She bases her views on the classical teachings of the Middle Ages.” But the writer does not liken this orientation to the PNEU in any way. The writer does not say, “Just as Mason did…” or “As with the PNEU…” Therefore Sayers’ ideas are “thought-provoking” — they reflect a starting point different from Mason and her followers. The writer even qualifies Sayers’ criticism of modern education by saying, “the alleged failure of modern education” — presumably to exempt the PNEU from this indictment.

The only positive remark in the review is the detached statement that “parents and teachers should be interested in the argument.” This strongly suggests that the argument is novel and should be investigated by PNEU thinkers from an academic viewpoint. It is not unlike how Mason herself spoke of theorists of her own day, such as Maria Montessori and Harriet Finlay-Johnson.

Nowhere does the writer say, “This is what we’ve been saying all along!” Nowhere does the writer endorse Sayers’ claim that “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn.” Doubtless that is because such a notion is completely contrary to Mason’s strong belief that children are already “well equipped to deal with ideas, and that explanations, questionings, amplifications, are unnecessary and wearisome” (VI:10-11). For Mason, every child as person is born fully equipped with all the tools of learning.

Sayers referred to the “lost tools of learning,” as if the answers to educational theory could be found in the classical past. Mason was the first to admit that even some pagans (for example, the Captain-teachers in the fresco) did have access to the truth, via direct inspiration from God the Holy Spirit. No doubt Pythagorus and Euclid were guided by the Divine Teacher into mathematical truths. But these lights of the classical era were harbingers of what was to come, not the whole in the germ. To a progressive like Charlotte Mason, the light of Divine revelation steadily increases through the generations. So she wrote:

We find that all men everywhere are keenly interested in science, that the world waits and watches for great discoveries; we, too, wait and watch, believing that, as Coleridge said long ago, great ideas of Nature are imparted to minds already prepared to receive them by a higher Power than Nature herself. (II:261)

Mason did not limit this progressive revelation to the field of science. She also believed that the field of education was improving as a result of providentially increasing light. In 1896, she wrote:

Life is more intense, more difficult, more exhausting for us than it was for our fathers; it will probably be more difficult still for our children than for ourselves. How timely, then, and how truly, as we say, providential, that, just at this juncture of difficult living, certain simple, definite clues to the art of living should have been put into our hands! Is it presumptuous to hope that new light has been vouchsafed to us in these days, in response to our more earnest endeavours, our more passionate cravings for ‘more light and fuller.’ (PR6:50-57)

It would run against the grain of Mason’s belief in progressive revelation for her to turn to the ancients and the medievals to find complete and satisfying answers to the questions of education. Her orientation is markedly different from Sayers (and today’s CCE writers), who explicitly advocate a return to classical patterns and practices in education. To a self-proclaimed progressive like Mason, why would anyone want to return to a pre-Gospel past? Instead, Mason writes:

We of the P.N.E.U., if we be minded to advance in our thousands with one heart and one purpose, are strong enough to bring about a Twentieth Century Renascence, more glorious and permanent than that of the Middle Age, because its ultimate source shall be a profound Christianity, in lieu of the poisoned springs of Paganism. We have the one thing to offer which the whole world wants, an absolutely effective system of education covering the whole nature of a child, the whole life of man. (PR23:811)

Mason’s fundamentally progressive orientation is clearly the reason why her Philosophy of Education is not the “foundational text for the modern classical education movement.” Instead, the foundational text is The Lost Tools of Learning. An answer must be given as to why the classical education movement began with Sayers and not Mason. The two theorists were contemporaneous — Mason died when Sayers was 30 years old. Sayers gave her pivotal lecture a mere 24 years after Mason’s death. (To put this in perspective, it was 27 years ago that Thorley wrote his introduction to the Andreola reprint of Mason’s Home Education Series.) It is difficult to comprehend, then, how Mason and Sayers could be considered to be part of the same movement. The simple explanation is that Sayers pointed to the classical tradition and Mason did not. Predictably, then, from 1949 to 1998, the consistent testimony of the inheritors of Mason’s legacy is that Mason should not be classified as a classical educator. This unbroken testimony has been challenged only in very recent years by claims which ultimately are not supported by the facts.

6 Replies to “Charlotte Mason Meets Dorothy Sayers”

  1. 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 8500 (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 8500 of of the millions of words I’ve written and shared with the public in my lifetime to be my only legacy.

    1. Dear Diana,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my article and to post your comment. So that I can better understand your point of view, would you be willing to answer a few questions for me?

      1. (a) What evidence do you have that Mason’s primary motivation behind her first principle (“Children are born Persons”) is to respond “to prevailing psychology of her day (hereditary determinism, ‘blank slate’”?
      (b) In Mason’s landmark essay entitled “Considering Children as ‘Persons’” (, why does Mason say this idea will “revers[e] our attitude towards children not only in a few particulars, but completely”?

      2. If Mason’s methods are “completely in line with the classical tradition,” then why was she considered by her contemporaries to have introduced a “revolution in method”? (Please see my latest article:

      3. Do you have a citation where Clark and Jain give the opinion that Mason’s methods are “completely in line with the classical tradition”? (I would very much appreciate your and their feedback on my article comparing Mason’s ideas to those of David Hicks:

      4. (a) What is your definition of “classical education”?
      (b) What essential attributes must a theory of education possess in order to be considered classical?
      (c) What are examples of attributes that a theory of education could have that would disqualify it from being considered classical?
      (d) What are examples of theories of education produced prior to 1925 that you would say are not properly considered classical?

      I would be very interested in your answers to these questions and I would be delighted to continue this dialog.


  2. Art,

    I’m looking forward to replying to your questions. How fun! It’s going to take some time for me to fit a thoughtful reply into my schedule this week (you know, homeschooling!). Hopefully by Friday.