Book Review: Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning

“Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education” by Douglas Wilson

This book, published in 1991, has become an incredibly influential book. In fact, an entire association of schools exists largely because of this book. In it, Douglas Wilson, a pastor in Moscow, ID, lays out his educational philosophy and a vision for Classical Christian schools. He relies heavily on examples from Logos School, which he founded in the early 1980’s to implement his educational philosophy.

The title of the book comes from a Dorothy Sayers essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning”, published in 1947. It is available for free online here. Sayers, disappointed in the direction that public education was heading in the 1940’s, wrote about the “classical” style of education, by which students had been taught for thousands of years. She compared this against the “modern” style of teaching in this way. In a nutshell, modern education focuses on teaching “subjects” (math, reading, science, etc) whereas classical education concentrates “on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning.” Rather than simply learning facts and charts, classically-trained students learn how to learn. Once equipped with these tools, they are able to more quickly and thoroughly grasp the subjects taught by modern education.

Wilson’s philosophy takes this a step further, using the biblical mandate for parents to teach their children as a foundation, and building upon that foundation using the classical “Trivium”, a system of teaching consisting of three stages: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. The result is what he calls “Classical Christian Education”.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, called “The Failure of Modern Secular Education”, is an effective and devastating critique of public schools. Many of the statistics in this section are outdated (things are actually much worse twenty years after the book was written), but the concepts are the same. He also addresses many reforms suggested by both Christians and the secular establishment, and points out reasons why they won’t work.

The second section is called “An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education”. In my opinion, this is the strongest section of the book. Here Wilson shows from God’s Word the indisputable mandate that Christians have to educate the next generation — and specifically their own children — according to God’s objective standard of truth. Because all “true truth” is God’s truth, every possible area of study hinges on a proper understanding of the biblical worldview. There is no such thing as an education which is “worldview neutral”; children are either being taught to live and learn according to God’s Word, or they are being taught to live “by bread alone”. Therefore, education is truly a ministry, and something which Christians must take seriously, both individually and corporately.

One common objection to Christian education which Wilson addresses is the sentiment that Christians must enroll their children in public schools to be “salt and light” there. He argues first of all that, despite the fact that millions of Christians are in these school systems (and have been for generations), “we would be hard pressed to show that Christian kids are making a difference in the public schools.” It is not fair for children to be expected to contend for a faith in which they have not yet been sufficiently instructed, particularly when the entire system is formulated around a worldview that is antithetical to Christianity.

Section three is titled, “An Approach to Distinctively Classical Education”. Wilson expounds further upon Sayers’ essay, and explores and details the content and methods of teaching the Trivium. He addresses some specific problems that every classical educator must overcome, whether teaching in a private school or a homeschool. Things such as television, video games, and other social and cultural distractions keep students from their books and studies, contributing to an anti-intellectual society.

One of the most interesting problems he addresses is that of money. He points out that, because churches and Christian parents have for so long abdicated the responsibility of teaching to the State, there is a price to pay to begin to set things right. Since all citizens are paying taxes to support public schools, those wishing to give their children a Christian education must actually “pay double”. Wilson is optimistic, though, that once a “mature Christian school system” reaches nationwide prominence (essentially returning education to the free market) there may be an opportunity from permanent relief. He is adamantly against school vouchers or any type of government involvement with private schools.

In one final chapter from this section, Wilson shows why he believes classical private schools to be superior to classical homeschooling. The argument here revolves primarily around two things. First is a “division of labor”. It is rare that a husband and wife will be equipped to teach every subject excellently, whereas in a private school teachers can excel within their own field. A practical example: One teacher trained in Latin can instruct 20 students. For 20 homeschool students to learn Latin, 20 homeschool parents must first learn Latin.

Second is the social aspect of learning. Much of the dialectic and rhetoric stages of the Trivium depend upon students learning to debate, defend, and articulate their beliefs. These things happen best in a community of students in a classroom setting. Wilson does say that homeschooling is the second best option after a private Classical Christian School (i.e. – better than traditional non-classical Christian schools), and would have been his choice had a good private school not been available.

The final section of the book is labeled, “Conclusions”. This is basically a short summary of everything previously stated, with a few points of emphasis and clarification.

Overall, Wilson’s arguments are very well-written and persuasive. Many skeptics (and particularly homeschoolers) will say rightly that an extreme minority of schools fit this description; that Logos is an exception rather than a standard that can be matched. However, this is a tough argument to make against Wilson, who has shown in his own personal experience that, when no suitable educational option exists, one can endeavor to create one from scratch as he did. It’s certainly not easy, but when education is a priority, a parent will do whatever it takes to get the best possible education for their children. “The proof is in the pudding”, as they say. Not only has Logos thrived over nearly three decades, but the organization that grew from it — the Association of Classical Christian Schools — now has nearly 250 schools and continues to steadily grow!

This book ought to be considered a must-read for every Christian parent, but particularly those who are teachers in the public schools or those who homeschool their children. You may not agree with everything Wilson says, but he will definitely have you thinking about vitally important things you may have never considered before! Buy it here.

5 comments on “Book Review: Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning

  1. Emily Williams says:

    John,

    Sounds like an interesting book! Definately something I want to check out. I’ve read some other material from Christians looking at this same subject/problem and one of the things that an author has yet to address (and it doesn’t seem like this author does either) is the role of personality in deciding what school would be best for a child. Most authors debate and show statistics, etc. and come to a conclusion that would be best “for all” children. I am definately concerned about the public school system, but personally, looking back on things, I don’t think I would have flourished well in any other environment when it comes to my faith. My personality required that I be somewhere that challenged my beliefs so I could really think and come out deciding for myself what was truth. I would have gone crazy being homeschooled (I couldn’t wait to go to school when I was 3 or 4), and I think I would have rebelled in a Christian school, where teachers are not “open” to exploring the secular side of things and, frankly, in my experience don’t have much knowledge in this area. I am interested to read this book to see if it addresses some of the concerns I have about traditional Christian schools, but would be dissapointed if he doesn’t also address the fact that all children are different, and what might be good for one child might not be good for another.

    • John Gardner says:

      Emily,

      I definitely recommend that you look into this book, but it is somewhat limited in its scope. Wilson is pretty exclusively talking here about the benefits of one type of school vs. others. He touches on some of the limitations of public schools, other types of Christian schools, and homeschools, but the bulk of his time is spent laying out the philosophy for classical Christian education. However, he does have several other books that do address some of the other questions you have. I would still start with this one, but here is a list of recommended reading from the Association of Classical Christian Schools to get a more fully-formed opinion. I haven’t read them all, but the books by Machen, Berkhof, and Weaver are very good. I’ve also bought but not yet read Wilson’s “Excused Absence: Should Christian Kids Leave Public Schools?” I expect that this book will probably more specifically answer some of the concerns with public schooling.

      In the book I just reviewed, he does address many of the differences between classical and traditional Christian schools. One thing that I think you’ll find comforting is that, with the classical model’s dialectic and rhetoric stages, they spend a LOT of time exploring secular issues and philosophies, learning to debate them critically but fairly to see how they fit with a biblical worldview. Something you should definitely check out is the “Omnibus” curriculum that ACCS has developed. I believe you can look at some samples online at the website for Veritas Press. Be sure to also check out the primary and secondary reading lists at the bottom of the page… they read some pretty heavy stuff! I’ll see if I can borrow a copy of an Omnibus book this weekend to show you when you visit.

      The Classical Christian approach is very much geared toward knowing not just what you believe and why, but also what others believe, why they believe it, why they don’t believe what you believe, and why you don’t believe what they believe. It’s all taught with evangelism as an ultimate focus. It’s useless to simply argue with people who have different beliefs, or to be saved without caring that others are lost. Christians must learn to share their beliefs in a way that is winsome yet uncompromising, giving a defense for our faith (1 Peter 3:15) and destroying arguments raised against God (2 Cor. 10:5).

      • Emily Williams says:

        John,

        Thanks for the additional insite and literature. I look forward to looking into all these books! It was encouraging to hear that the classical Christian approach takes seriously the secular side of things and doesn’t just dismiss it as false (even if it is). I think we need to be well versed not only in our Christian perspectives, but in the secular perspectives as well in order to be taken seriously. While this might not be fair (as secularists don’t think they ought to be well versed in Christian theology before refuting it) I think both sides need equal study in order to overcome the world, and be effective in it.

        Looking forward to seeing you, Laurie and Nate on Sunday!

  2. […] How Classical Education Shapes Us as God Intended — This is a great concise summary of the many benefits of a classical education, written by the author of The Gospel and the Mind (my review), which is now less than $3 on Kindle. I also highly recommend a book Green references in this article called Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (my review). […]

  3. […] kids. In his 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Wilson makes clear that he believes “classical private schools to be superior to classical homeschooling.” He states his case so strongly, in fact, that some say “he condemns home school as a viable […]

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