Friday, April 4, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Dorothy Sayers & "The Lost Tools of Learning"

This week, I'm staying at Trinity College, part of the University of Oxford, for the UK Speechwriters Guild conference, and I've been thinking about Dorothy Sayers, a child of Oxford if ever there were one. She was born there and returned to be educated at the university, finishing her studies in modern languages and medieval literature in 1915. But because women were not awarded degrees at that time, she didn't receive her MA and graduate until 1920.

Later, this scholar and mystery novelist both paid homage and got her revenge by writing Gaudy Night, the penultimate book in her series of mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. It's set so thoroughly in Oxford that it's practically required reading today for newcomers to the "dreaming spires" of the university.

And it was at Oxford that Sayers gave her speech, "The Lost Tools of Learning," in 1947. To this day, it is used as an effective argument for reviving a "classical education" in grammar, logic and rhetoric, fitting for the conference I'll be attending. All three are evident in this well-reasoned and -argued speech, which asks, "The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more?" Sayers makes the case this way, speaking of the post-World War II generation:
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education--lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Even before a highly technical audience, be clear: Too often, when the non-academic wanders into a den of researchers and professors, she tries too hard to be erudite and complex--and only succeeds in sounding out of her league. Whether you're a researcher speaking to a mixed audience of non-researchers and colleagues, or a non-researcher speaking to academics, you can't go wrong aiming for clarity. Sayers's clear writing style holds up well with this audience, and makes the speech one that anyone can appreciate. In no way is this "dumbed down," as she knows that big ideas don't need big words, and these are big ideas.
  • Answer the "who does she think she is?" question: "That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology," states Sayers right at the start, throwing down the gauntlet. If you suspect your audience is thinking "who does she think she is to be speaking to us?" -- something that happens a lot to women speakers -- tell them. No apologies, no prisoners taken, forge right ahead.
  • Show your passion: You could read one of her mystery novels or her master's thesis, and you'd come away with the certainty that, for Sayers, the life of the mind was of utmost importance. Here, she shares it abundantly. There are enough classical allusions here to convince even the greatest doubter that she herself was a scholar worth hearing. But more than that, Sayers shares her real passion: Making classical education relevant to the young people of that day. To her, it wasn't a dusty throwback pursuit, but a living and relevant one, necessary to the challenges of modern times and an antidote to woolly thinking.
  • Build excitement with your sentences: That last sentence in the paragraph quoted above--beginning with "We dole out lip-service..."--is at first glance very long, particularly when read silently to yourself. But try reading it aloud to hear the building momentum and excitement. Here, punctuation (a lost tool of speaking) is your guide to great vocalization. Pause for those dashes and semicolons as you enumerate this important list, and put some passion into it, as Sayers must have done. It's a masterful climax to her argument.
You can buy an inexpensive ebook version of The Lost Tools of Learning or read the full text here.

Sayers's essays in Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society share more of her feminist thinking, as does the novel Gaudy Night, in which strong objections to women in higher education turn into the harrassment and near-murder on which the mystery hinges. Gaudy Night also includes some wry observations of the male speakers who deign to share their knowledge in talks and lectures at the women's college in which the novel is set. The American book critic Michael Dirda has included this particular novel in a list of books you should read when you're thinking things through, which is what the story's heroine is doing and also how I use it. But it also can give you insights into Sayers's own experiences in higher education at a time when it was rare for women to pursue academic achievements. What do you think of this famous speech?