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Christine Miller

On the Trivium:
Historic and Modern Application

This page last revised:
April 2003


Historic & Modern Application

Christine Miller

Classical vs. Modern Education

Modern public education does not look like the trivium. But in order to understand why, we have to understand from whence modern education has come. For, if one takes a cursory glance through Classical America, we find that even 200 years ago things were very different in American education than they are today. How did we get so far away from the classical tradition in education?

In order to approach an answer, we must understand the rise of government- sponsored education, and with it, the public school nightmare. Richard Mitchell, professor of classics at Glassboro State College, deftly details the not-so-subtle shift in educational philosophy that accompanied that change from classical education to modern education in The Graves of Academe. You must read the whole work, it is a thoughtful and considered piece of scholarship, elegantly written with humor and insight. In it, he follows the rise of the pseudo-science of “educationism,” and its rejection of academia in favor of the unmeasurable and untestable nebulous principles of behavior modification and “humanism:”

Over and against the overweening demands of scholarly intellectualism, the teacher-trainers have set the presumably unquestionable virtues of what they call “humanism.” They use this term in so many different contexts and to characterize so many different kinds of acts and ideologies that I will not attempt to discuss it fully here. It will just have to grow on you. It does not, as you might think, denote as usual a particular school of thought or slant of philosophical or religious speculation connected especially but not exclusively with the Renaissance, although many who use the term have heard of the Renaissance. This is something closer to “humaneness,” as that word is used by what used to be called the “Humane Society,” an organization that publically deplored the cruel treatment of horses. One of the aims of “humanistic” educationism is to deplore the cruel treatment of children subjected to the overbearing demands of knowledge, scholarship, and logic by the traditional powers of authoritarian intellectualism.

And so here we are today, as far away from traditional scholarship and training in the rigorous demands of the trivium that underpins it, as one can get. It is a far cry from the tested and proven methods of nurturing the intellect, drawn from the classical tradition, required by historic American education:

[The] NEA task force that had been made up largely of scholars, the Committee of Ten, [was] called together in 1892 and chaired by Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard University. That committee had come out in favor of traditional academic study in the public schools, which they fancied should be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the training of the intellect. But what can you expect from a bunch of intellectuals? The Eliot Report of 1893 was given to things like this:

As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties; so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.

Obviously, the Eliot committee did its work in the lost, dark days before the world of education had discovered the power of the bold innovative thrust. All they asked of the high schools was the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment.

Richard Mitchell, The Graves of Academe.

Classical Education in History

However, throughout history education meant “the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment.” Grammar has been the first study of children from antiquity, and the term “grammar school,” commonly used in the past, still means a child’s first school. In the classical world, a child’s first school was where he learned the grammar of Greek and Latin, the foundation upon which all other education was built. Aristotle, who lived at roughly the same time as Alexander the Great, compiled the system of formal Logic in use today and wrote a treatise on Rhetoric used in universities for millenia. The occupation of rhetorician, or public-speaker, was a lofty one in Roman society, with Cicero being the most reknown. Quintilian, who was influenced by Cicero, was a famous teacher of rhetoric in Rome and wrote Institutio Oratoria, a work detailing the instruction of children and the training of orators; it was likewise used for centuries.

During the Middle Ages the mastery of the Seven Liberal Arts became solidly fixed as the sole educational curriculum, with no question as to its authority, little experimentation with its processes, and few new works added to the ancient texts used in schools. Everyone knew that seven was the number of perfection anyway, so nothing was added or taken away. These seven liberal arts are explained in the old couplet quoted by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image:

Gram loquitur, Dia verba docet, Rhet verba colorat,
Mus canit, Ar numerat, Geo ponderat, Ast colit astra.

Which translated, means:

Grammar talks, Dialectic teaches words, Rhetoric colors words,
Music sings, Arithmetic numbers, Geometry weighs, Astronomy tends the stars.

The first three -- Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric -- formed the trivium, the three-fold way. The remaining four -- Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy -- formed the quadrivium, the four-fold way. The trivium was first mastered as a foundation to further study in the quadrivium. The medieval quadrivium was the fore-runner of our university, and is the reason today that earning an undergraduate degree still requires a four-year course of study.

In looking at the medieval concept of the trivium, then, C.S. Lewis states that “Grammar talks” means that Grammar teaches us Latin, which was the “living Esperanto of the western world and great works were still being written in it. It was the language par excellence, so that the very word Latin came to mean language.” (Greek was not studied during the Middle Ages, for the most part. All the Greek texts had been translated into Latin.) The phrase “Dialectic teaches words,” really means that “having learned from grammar how to talk, we must learn from Dialectic how to talk sense, to argue, to prove and disprove.” “Rhetoric colors words” -- it gives what we have to say, built by grammar and dialectic, “structure and style.”

During the Renaissance, and the revival of all things classical, several changes were brought about in education, most notably due to the influence of Desiderius Erasmus. He encouraged the learning of Greek as well as of Latin, so that the New Testament could be read in its original language. With the invention of the printing press, more school books and instruction books for teachers became available. Erasmus himself wrote several on the teaching of rhetoric. The tumultous years of the Reformation followed, which brought a fresh emphasis on Biblical study and exegesis. The classical emphasis on language study was brought to the New World by the Puritan colonists, who determined that every child be able to read the Bible, and every pastor be a scholar of Latin and Greek (grammar), able to determine truth from error in their doctrine (dialectic), and able to eloquently expound on the Scriptures (rhetoric). Thus the training in the trivium, underpinned by a Biblical worldview, remained the standard of academic excellence.

The classical concept of the trivium in education survived as the sole educational model for two millenia because it worked -- it consistently produced educated men, given to “the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica on the History of Education
(Subscriber site; free trial available)
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica on the History of Education

The Single-Subject School

Classical, medieval, and colonial education look very different from our modern education ideal. Where were all the classes in science, arithmetic, history (or should I say, social studies), literature, art, and ...? We learned from The Public School Nightmare that the Prussians instituted the system of schooling where many subjects taught in isolation were crammed into each school day, necessitating that each one receive a small block of time--an hour or less--ending with a bell. They didn’t do this so that students could become masters of science, arithmetic, history, and so on, but so that they would learn to accept what they were told without question, (since they didn’t have time to study much of anything in depth) and become conditioned to going where they were told at the sound of a bell. It was a system designed to rob them of the power of their mind--and it worked. World War I and II are the results of the Prussian model of schooling.

Before the Prussian model, students were given large chunks of time to study a single subject: Greek and Latin grammar. This was the foundation for further study in logic and rhetoric as taught by the classics written in Greek and Latin. Students learned history and literature by way of Greek and Latin grammar, as they read for practice things like Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (Concering the Gallic War) and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and other works. They learned English grammar incidentally as a result of learning Greek and Latin. Historically, science was not a part of a child’s education, and sometimes only the rudiments of arithmetic were learned. Thomas Jefferson learned his arithmetic, not from his grammar school, but from a private instructor hired by his father.

This immersion solely in the tools of learning -- grammar, logic, and rhetoric -- produced the men of colonial America who were then able to educate themselves further about any subject they desired to pursue (as Benjamin Franklin did with science). But more importantly, it produced free men, able to think for themselves, as is the aim of a liberal education (liber means “free” in Latin). It fit them for the task of forming the first free government on the earth in modern times. When faced with their own tyrant, in the form of George III, they did not mindlessly do what they were told. Their education enabled them to evaluate what they were told to do, and decide whether it was in fact the right thing to do. Having decided that it was not, their education equipped them to search history and make applications to their present situation, so that they might discover the right course of action. And all their work of the mind was guided by the Biblical worldview into which they had been immersed.

Is it any wonder that modern education, sponsored by the government, with attendance there made compulsory by law, shuns large blocks of time devoted to the Bible, Greek, Latin, Logic, and Rhetoric? That would produce free men, thinkers; and, as Richard Mitchell points out, “the free are quirky” -- hard to control. Why do you think our modern system of schooling is modeled after Prussia and not after colonial America?

The Trivium for Today

But, as homeschoolers, we have a unique and God-given window of opportunity to rectify matters in education, at least for our own children. As we study how to apply the trivium to education today, there are at least two schools of thought that have arisen. One is inspired by Dorothy Sayers, from her famous speech The Lost Tools of Learning. She points out the major deficiencies with modern educationism, and advocates a return to the classical model of education. In it, she suggests that each subject in the curriculum be divided into its grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages; and it is true, since the trivium describes the laws of learning, that each subject has a grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric aspect. This website attempts to detail those aspects, and meld them together into a practical and workable course of study for homeschoolers.

The other school of thought advocates limiting the subjects in the curriculum and returning to the single subject school: Greek and Latin grammar in the elementary grades, logic in the middle grades, and rhetoric in the high school grades, as was the case with traditional classical education.

My personal belief is that, in an ideal world, the latter approach is desirable with modification. First of all, in its pure form it is unworkable for most of us who homeschool because of state regulations concerning our curriculum. And in this day and age, neither arithmetic and higher mathematics, nor science can be optional subjects in the curriculum. I believe a blending of the two approaches to the trivium will give us the desired result, which remains, after all, young adults devoted to “the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment;” men and women made free by their education -- i.e. able to think, reason, and apply accurately and for themselves.

We must remember that the central subject of the grammar stage remains Greek and Latin grammar; the central subject of the dialectic stage remains logic, and the central subject of the rhetoric stage remains rhetoric. We provide the maximum time in the school day for their study. In this way, the tools of learning -- grammar, logic, and rhetoric-- become the servants to the other subjects we undertake. Grammar gives us precision and proficiency in language, which enables us to read with comprehension history, literature, science, philosophy, and anything else. Logic gives us the ability to think rightly and arrive at valid conclusions, which develops our reason used in mathematics, science, and in evaluating what we read in history, literature, etc. Rhetoric teaches us to communicate, and so becomes the handmaiden to writing, oratory, and in contributing to the ideas fostered by history, literature, science, etc.

We are not trying to perpetuate the schooling atrocity institited by the Prussians, so let us not becomes slaves to the subjects. Rather, let them serve us in inculcating the tools of learning in our children.

The Core of Classical Education

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