Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Thoughts on The Lost Tools of Writing

Thoughts on The Lost Tools of Writing @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

Have you read The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers? The essay is available online, and it is short enough that reading it yearly is a reasonable, not to mention profitable and inspiring, exercise if one is interested in the field of education, particularly classical education.

I recently re-read the essay and discovered a few nuggets that I had previously missed or perhaps forgotten. It could be that we’ve entered a new stage in our homeschool that comes with new challenges. For instance, the following quote has a painful accuracy that I did not feel so acutely a few years ago:

“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.”

Truly, I could not say it more eloquently.

I also experienced many “aha!” moments when I compared Sayers’s essay to the Classical Conversations syllabus.

The Lost Tools of Writing, however, was prominently on my mind at the time, and I highlighted the following passage:

Our Reading will proceed from narrative and lyric to essays, argument and criticism, and the pupil will learn to try his own hand at writing this kind of thing…

Wherever the matter for Dialectic is found, it is, of course, highly important that attention should be focused upon the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well-turned argument, lest veneration should wholly die. Criticism must not be merely destructive; though at the same time both teacher and pupils must be ready to detect fallacy, slipshod reasoning, ambiguity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and to pounce upon them like rats. This is the moment when precise-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.

What struck me in this passage was the idea of precise, reduced writing, or pruning, one might say.

My late grammar-stage students are allowed some haphazard “flowering” and growth while using the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) program. They liberally douse, and occasionally drown, their writing with strong verbs, quality adjectives, “ly” adverbs, vocabulary words, who/which clauses, and decorations such as alliteration. They are playing with language in order to become familiar with it. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many IEW papers written by students in 4th-6th grades, and it is not only my boys who are not precise with their language play. This is reasonable in the grammar stage of learning.

But what of the dialectic? Dialectic is a pruning stage, and pruning is rarely beautiful.

Have you pruned a rose bush? The pruning process is orderly and precise, and the sight of the spare, harsh branches is a bit shock after the leggy late-season growth. But the benefits of judicious pruning of plants include balanced shaping and directed growth, improved air flow, improved plant health, targeted removal of non-productive or structurally unsound material, and increased yield or quality of flowers and fruits.

The rudimentary, introductory, and basic persuasive essays that students write when they begin The Lost Tools of Writing are not intended to look like the untidy sprawling of the grammar stage or the flowering masterpieces of the rhetoric stage. They are intended to be precise, reduced writing with correct structure that will allow for beautiful, high-quality, productive growth in the coming years.

The students begin playing with ideas rather than words, and they focus their attention and efforts on the systematic gathering and processing of ideas (the “invention” stage of the art of rhetoric) as they pertain to a well-turned argument. The beauty comes slowly, allowing the students to be attentive, judicious, and artful, one scheme or trope at a time.

The strength of a piece of writing is rooted in its ideas and basic structure, and the strength of The Lost Tools of Writing is the way it guides a student through the thinking (invention) and structure (arrangement) processes before moving on to style (elocution). I shared more thoughts on The Lost Tools of Writing as a thinking and conversing program here and here.

But let’s talk for a moment about the “should question.” The Lost Tools of Writing process begins with this important foundation. Students consider a character in a story (or in history), choose an action the character performed, and ask, “Should he have done that?”

Andrew Kern says that wisdom is judgment, and late-dialectic-stage students are just beginning to practice wisdom as they make judgments about a character’s actions.

Who cares if Jane runs? I sure don’t. But everybody wants to know whether the ants should have fed the grasshopper, whether Caesar should have crossed the Rubicon, and whether Odysseus should have slaughtered the suitors. These things matter because they arouse the right questions. They help students clarify their thoughts about what is just and fair, what is wise and prudent, and what is noble and honorable. [From The Greatest of All Things by Andrew Kern @ CiRCE]

In the preface of Norms and Nobility, David Hicks says this:

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom. As this implies, the end of education is not thinking; it is acting.

Have we spent enough time thinking about the end of education? Is knowledge the goal? Is flowery writing the goal? Or is wisdom and right action the goal? Knowledge such as a robust vocabulary is a necessary building block, but it is nothing if the student does not move on to judicious use of words and then on to wisdom and right action.


A few related thoughts and articles for your perusal:

:: The Holy Grail of Classical Education by Andrew Kern @ CiRCE. [Read the full article to find out why the “why?” matters. I love the concept that this question is the key to an integrated curriculum.]

If I want to see into the meaning of this event, learning the content is necessary. But it is not enough. You have to ask why he did it, what were the outcomes, what he overcame, whether he was wise to do so, what his courage purchased for us, and other big picture questions.

:: Wisdom in the Age of Information and the Importance of Storytelling in Making Sense of the World: An Animated Essay by Maria Popova [You can read the transcript at Brain Pickings, linked in title, or watch the animated video below.]


“At the top is wisdom, which has a moral component — it is the application of information worth remembering and knowledge that matters to understanding not only how the world works, but also how it should work. And that requires a moral framework of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an ideal of the world at its highest potentiality.”

The Lost Tools of Writing introduced me to the five Topics of Invention, which are tools (questions) for structured thinking. I have been amazed over and over again while playing with the first tool, definition. It astounds me that such fruit can come of something so simple as naming and defining. This first topic of invention is a fantastic way to introduce younger children to dialectic conversation. The next article and the following video show just how rich this single tool can be for a person of any age.

:: Into the Essence of Things by Danny Breed @ CiRCE.

Once you see into a thing’s heart, you can appreciate its beauty, its relationship to things around it, and how it can bless others. Yet, how does one learn to see into the essence of things? It starts with naming, which was one of the first tasks the Lord set before the first man.

:: Matt Bianco Teaches Socratic Circles

Jennifer Dow compares IEW and The Lost Tools of Writing:

:: Comparing IEW and The Lost Tools of Writing @ Expanding Wisdom

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