The Lost Joy of Learning

The Lost Joy of Learning May 8, 2018

Dorothy Sayers rightly mourned The Lost Tools of Learning and I share her sorrow. Fortunately a large classical school and college movement has arisen that is giving a new generation back those tools. Yet I see a greater problem than the one Sayers feared: the lost joy of learning.

In twenty years of teaching honors college students, I saw many students with high standardized test scores, but who were missing some of the tools needed to learn. There were students who wrote badly, spoke poorly, and read poorly . . . And yes, sometimes these tools were missing in one student. However, a good general education program at a fine college combined with a motivated student can change everything.

You can catch up if you wish. I have seen it done many times. A grad of Football High loves learning, discovers he is missing some basic tools, and works hard. A good school will have spent the money to get individual mentoring for this student and will have a well funded*, extensive**, dialectical** general education core. A man who wants to be educated, think Frederick Douglass, will get an education.

A burnout is unreachable.

It is a bad when a school does not offer the tools of learning, but not fatal. I have seen students almost-not-schooled-at-all until fifth or sixth grade catch up (with hard work) in three years. This was not a good situation, but at least the student was still entranced with learning.

If somehow your school misses some tools, a good college (or even hard work) can fix the issue.

(Free Unreleated Tip: Never, ever go to a college that cuts the core to “help” you. Ask your college: is your core growing or shrinking? The core is where you gain or polish the tools of learning.  If they really want to help you, they will lower tuitition, cut administrators, and grow the core.)

There is a terminal problem in education:  the loss of joy. The student who cannot care, who has become duty bound, haunted or driven only by fear of failure, motivated by prizes, grades, or honors is in trouble. In most cases, this student gets into a great college, or an honors program, and we discover he is done. He has read too much, been forced forward at too an early an age.

I have seen a college student recover from burnout imposed by well meaning schools and parents, but too few. There is no sure path. Unlike the lost tools of learning, the lost joy in learning is almost always gone.


We forget that Sayers and the ancient education she envisions came at childhood’s end. One went to school when done with the nursery, perhaps as late as ten. A question many so called “classical schools” never ask is this: Is a young child, hardly old enough to walk, ready for the trivium?

Research and my own experience say “no.”

The eagerness of parents and the competitive nature of schools encourages quick achievement. The school strains forward and young children are so malleable we can force them to accelerate. We can get them to write more, read more, and play less. This is unnecessary and potentially harmful.

We forget the wealthy of an earlier period (the sort that could afford education) allowed a nursery period before real schooling. Wendy in Peter Pan has a last night in the nursery before the rigors of adulthood. Leaving the play of nursery is sad, but we must leave. Once a child can no longer play, when toys are not toys, but collectibles, the nursery moment is gone forever. No one should rush to this moment. 

Some “classical” schools prove that they can force feed knowledge to children, but demonstrate daily they cannot teach teenagers to play. Is it any wonder that many programs are designed to end in eighth grade when the acceleration still appears to matter, but the looming burnout is less apparent?

The youngest need play, challenges, and a pace designed to encourage wonder, creativity, and joy. A proper schooling will be almost, though not, unschooling, the Victorian nursery. Then as the older grades come harder subjects are revealed. By high school a student who learned to play will also be working at what we now call a college level.

The joy of learning is the most fragile of all the necessary skills to education. It is easily destroyed. (God have mercy on me a proefessor!) Adulthood has rigors and work and a school must prepare for the student these challenges. However, a well designed program is integrated: kindergarten through “grade” sixteen. College education is coming, inevitably coming, and the school must prepare students, but slowly. Tomorrow is not today.

Let the children play.


* The core should be taught be full time professors, not adjuncts. These full time professors should specialize in general education. Never trust a school that is balances the budget with the core. Ask: are making the core bigger or smaller. What was your last move? To attend a liberal arts college that is cutting the liberal arts is like attending a technical school this is cutting the technical portions of the program. Just do not.

** There should be lots of literature, history, social science, philosophy, and in Christian colleges theology. Sixty units or more required general education is a must. Don’t let them rip you off with high tuition, “practical” majors (always based on the last decade), and homogenization. 

***Dialectical means: Socratic method dominates over information distribution and the tools of learning are taught through experiencing them under a mentor. Find a program where you meet Obi-wan, not worker hired by the Committee from the Empire (they may not teach much general education, but they have PowerPoint!) 

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!