The Lost Seeds of Learning: A Review

The Lost Seeds of Learning: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric as Life-Giving Arts by Phillip J. Donnelly. Classical Academic Press. 2022. 288pp. $11.95.

By now, thousands of educators have no doubt read Daniel Herman’s Atlantic piece, “The End of High School English.” In it, Herman, an English teacher, heralds the apocalyptic arrival of text-generating AI programs. His chosen example is OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which can respond to prompts stipulating both subject matter and style, producing polished and coherent essays in mere seconds. True, Herman’s reaction is a little cartoonish. He is floored by AI sentences like, “they blossomed into playful and affectionate companions who were eager to give and receive love;” and his idea of an “unhackable” essay prompt is to draw a thematic connection between Homer and Dante. But since we can assume that this technology will only get more sophisticated, Herman’s tone of foreboding is apt. The appropriation by machines of so characteristically human an activity as writing is indeed an alarming prospect, especially for teachers.

Phillip J. Donnelly’s new book The Lost Seeds of Learning: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric as Life-Giving Arts is distinctly suited to speak to our present situation, in which the rapid advance of “smart” technology threatens to turn men and women into what Thoreau called “tools of their tools.” Among other things, the book is a critique of the very idea of a “tool” as modern people construe it, and a sustained argument that knowledge inheres only in living persons, whether human or divine. Such an argument ought to interest any Christian educator working in the ChatGPT era.

As is evident from the book’s publisher, Donnelly writes primarily for readers in the Classical Christian Education sphere. For those not caught up, this educational movement, active since the late 80s, has lately been engaged in internecine debates over the true nature of its project. The key texts for understanding the debate are: 1.) Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning;” 2.) Douglas Wilson’s book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, the work that, taking its cue from Sayers’ essay, sparked the Classical Christian Education movement and gave it its initial form; 3.) Charles Evans’ and Robert Littlejohn’s Wisdom and Eloquence, the first book from within the movement to challenge the use of Sayers’ approach to the trivium as a structural model; and 4.) Kevin Clark’s and Ravi Jain’s The Liberal Arts Tradition, a work that attempts to provide a full account of the form and aims of traditional Christian pedagogy. Donnelly interacts with some of these texts, and though his own project is broader and more theoretical than theirs, he takes as his starting point the Sayersian image of liberal arts as tools of learning, an image that he seeks to fill out and ultimately to sublate. The classical arts of language, Donnelly argues, are not just like tools, they are like seeds.

Though the book ranges over a great variety of subject matter, its lodestar is this thesis about imagery. Donnelly feels that the image we use to describe knowledge or learning—the way we imagine it—is as important as the bodies of knowledge and pedagogical strategies we deploy. This is because, as he explains, modern life as a whole is inimical to the type of learning Christians should pursue. As he puts it, “The problem is the vision of reality (the habits and assumptions) that our information culture instills by its very forms of communication” (20). The Lost Seeds of Learning attempts to set out, not just an educational scheme, but an alternative vision of reality to that of modern information culture. Over the course of seven chapters, Donnelly sketches out his vision for the arts of the classical trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

In each section, Donnelly performs a kind of double-transformation of the liberal art in question. The progression is from neutral tool to purposive tool to seed; which is parallel to a progression from modernity to antiquity to Christianity (see 21-27). The first transformation relies on the thesis that the modern world has forgotten the true meaning of tool, substituting a notion of neutrality and unlimited utility for one of intrinsic purpose. The purposive tool has an inbuilt purpose, as opposed to being endlessly malleable to the whim of its user. It is easy to infer what this means for liberal arts as tools of the mind. But this is not enough. Informed by the logic of the incarnation, Donnelly says, we need to take a more organic view of knowledge: “A seed, like a tool, has an intrinsic purpose that arises from its distinctive union of matter and form. For a seed, however, the dynamic reality that unites the agent, matter, and form with its purpose is alive rather than dead. Furthermore, the highest potential of the seed—to communicate life—is not of human origin. At the same time, each seed bears a unique genealogical relationship to its ancestors and its progeny” (23-24). To envision knowledge as seed-like means both to emphasize its place in a genealogy of flesh-and-blood human beings and to locate its source of unity in a living God.

What might it mean to take such a seminal view of, say, the art of grammar? Incidentally, grammar receives the most thorough treatment out of any of the arts, and seems in some ways architectonic for Donnelly’s program. It is important for him, first of all, that grammatical knowledge is “living knowledge,” residing in a person as know-how rather than in a linguistic system as an object (61). Furthermore, as an art, grammar involves making something. His own definition of grammar is “knowing how to select and arrange words to make faithful and appropriate verbal renderings of reality” (52). These two aspects of grammar, its location in a person and its orientation toward making, will obtain with the other arts as well. Donnelly is himself careful in his selection and arrangement of words: he unpacks every key term in the above definition, drawing out the basic implications while using footnotes to address more abstruse issues of linguistic philosophy and critical theory. He then offers an example of his approach, an analysis of Aristotle’s four causes as “verbal renderings of reality.” The four causes play a key role throughout the book. It seems that, for Donnelly, modernity’s ills stem, not only from the loss of final cause as a category, but also from the failure to ask what he calls the “crucial fifth question,” namely, “What links the causes of a given reality together (67)? How do matter and form interact, or agent and purpose, such that reality is the way it is? To form an utterance that describes or dramatizes reality is more than a game of signs, says Donnelly: it is an exercise in faithfulness (55).

All of the above begins to gesture toward the seed image—we see how knowledge inheres in a living person and takes into account intrinsic purposes or final causes. But we are still only in the court of the Gentiles. In the second chapter on grammar, Donnelly undertakes a semantic investigation of Biblical words for “seed,” “offspring,” and “word,” culminating in a synthetic vision of speech as Christological self-giving (92-97). This appears to be why Donnelly’s fifth question about causes is called “crucial.” At the crux of the four causes stands the real cross, the sacrificial death of the Logos by which he bears much fruit (see 117). The theological thesis of The Lost Seeds of Learning is that all language manifests a living, incarnate reality that gives itself in order to create new life on the pattern of Christ.

It is now evident how thrillingly ambitious Donnelly’s work is. Though it begins in the Classical Christian Education enclave, it quickly emerges into a wider intellectual landscape, becoming a kind of theological prolegomena to language arts. Beyond what has been summarized here, insights on all manner of topics abound. Each chapter contains “pedagogical reflections,” explicitly linking Donnelly’s ideas to classroom practice. Each verbal art is also paired with cardinal or theological virtues. There is an exposition of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, an explanation of logic’s relationship to liturgy, a meditation on the five canons of rhetoric, and a defense of Latin. Flashes of brilliance include Donnelly’s claim (in a footnote) that every modern school of literary theory overemphasizes one of the four causes for a text at the expense of the others (75), and his creative use of Plato’s terminology in the Republic to divide all language into descriptive and dramatic “modes” (104). There is much here to provoke the sensitive reader to deeper thinking.

There is much that needs further development as well. Donnelly’s cast of thought is highly allusive and associative, such that his ideas link and merge in multifarious ways. He has sentences like this: “[T]he ‘hearing’ made possible by the verbal arts (the knowledge of verbal making) can be both imitative and performative, in that words can resemble, invite, and enable our participation in the action of divine self-giving” (99). While this is a compelling point, it can be difficult to tell when Donnelly modulates among the different ways in which he sees language relating to divine action. As a result, the arguments can appear equivocal. I was confused about the true tenor of his central seed image: is it primarily words that are seed-like, or arts, or the whole trivium, or all knowledge? Likely it is all of these, but the boundaries seemed to blur in ways that made it hard to get at the essence of his claims.

This may be intentional. If Donnelly’s ideas about education are to be taken seriously, then his book should be read as itself a seed (or packet of seeds) to communicate life and thought to the reader. Especially given that The Lost Seeds of Learning is the introductory volume in a planned set of four books covering the whole trivium, it stands to reason that this would be the place for him to lay down his principles and gesture at their subsequent development. If Donnelly’s ideas in this book are any indication of what is to come, the rest of the series is not to be missed.

Joshua Patch is PhD candidate in Literature at the University of Dallas and Rhetoric School English Teacher at The Covenant School, Dallas, Texas.


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