Why we need scholarship and intellectual integrity–Dorothy L. Sayers

While snooping around in the Marion Wade Center‘s archives last year, I discovered a gem of an article by Dorothy L. Sayers in the little magazine Oxford. In it, she explained with her characteristic verve and insight why academic scholarship, while it may seem otiose and impractical to the outsider, is in fact a very great boon to the world. And I noted the resonances between this article and her now world-famous essay (which has become the founding document of countless Christian private schools–especially in the classical model) “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

At that point, I skimmed the article, noting that this was the same theme that animated her wonderful novel Gaudy Night. Then I put it away and went on to other things. This summer, back at the Wade, I dug out the article again and made some notes on it, then had it photocopied. Here is a sample:

Sayers, Dorothy L., “What is Right with Oxford?” Oxford 2 n. 1 (Summer 1935): 34 – 41

What is right with Oxford? What does it offer the world that is of value? She suggests one word: “scholarship.” Then she explains:

“ . . . [I]t is surely of great use to acquire the scholarly judgement that can settle any doctrine upon the evidence, [37] without haste, without passion, and without self-interest. The integrity of mind that money cannot buy; the humility in face of the facts that self-esteem cannot corrupt: these are the fruits of scholarship, without which all statement is propaganda and all argument special pleading. No trained mind, observing political and economic theory, sociology, history, and even biography as these subjects are commonly presented to the people to-day, is likely to suggest that the presentation errs on the side of scholarly moderation or intellectual integrity. The most striking characteristic of the man who has been semi-educated in an unscholarly tradition is his pathetic helplessness under the domination of words; and European democracies to-day are semi-educated. If they were not educated at all, they might contrive to ignore the words and stick to such facts as they were sure of; if they were fully educated, they might learn to handle words with the masterly assurance of Humpty Dumpty; but while they can only venerate words without criticizing them, it is wicked and cruel to leave them at the mercy of charlatans.” (36 – 7)

“Ah, yes—but in this practical age it is necessary to get things done. (The academic question ‘What things?’ is regarded as foolish trifling.) All this caution and moderation is a brake upon the wheels of progress; though, since we seem to be moving at a pretty rapid rate, a brake might be no bad thing, particularly if, as is just possible, our progress is downhill. But actually it is a mistake to suppose that the scholarly habit of mind is necessarily unpractical. It is no accident that our most successful line of English rulers was remarkable for scholarship and for choosing [38] scholarly ministers. ‘The Cecils and Bacons fitted themselves by their academic studies to govern the country’, says Professor Trevelyan, blandly unaware that he is saying anything surprising. It is true that a merely negative and critical attitude is unfavourable to great enterprise; but the cry ‘No enthusiasm, gentlemen!’ is not typical of the golden days of scholarship at Oxford or anywhere else. And it is the scholar’s great strength that he is, in the last resort, more supple and adaptable than the doctrinaire. He will not break his head against a stone wall. ‘The situation is thus and thus’, he will say, ‘and it is useless to deny it; we cannot tamper with the facts.’” (37 – 38)

One response to “Why we need scholarship and intellectual integrity–Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. I particularly like Sayers characterization of the semi-educated as able only to venerate words without criticizing them. It’s actually a painful insight: it points to lack of in-depth thinking. Something too easy for me to do. Actually, Sayer’s background as a copywriter shows a bit in the comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s