Have you ever heard someone talk about the Trivium?
You’re not unusual if you haven’t, for the word seems to have gradually faded away from mainstream society. But once upon a time, the concept of the Trivium was well known and used to give young students a well-rounded education.
According to mid-20th century author Dorothy Sayers, the Trivium is what we might consider the syllabus of medieval schools. “It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order,” she writes in her famous essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Here’s what she had to say about each:
Grammar indeed is a ‘subject’ in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language—at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was in fact intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all. First, he learned a language: not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of language—a language-and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together and how it worked.
In our day, the grammar stage loosely compares to the elementary school years, where, as Sayers explains, children are ready and quick to memorize, mimic, and in general be vessels ready to be filled with facts and information.
Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation.
This stage corresponds to our middle school years and capitalizes on the pre- and early-teen tendency to argue, debate, and question.
Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language: how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively. At this point, any tendency to express himself windily or to use his eloquence so as to make the worse appear the better reason would, no doubt, be restrained by his previous teaching in Dialectic. If not, his teacher and his fellow-pupils, trained along the same lines, would be quick to point out where he was wrong; for it was they whom he had to seek to persuade. At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty. By this time he would have learned—or woe betide him—not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled.
This last stage corresponds to our high school years, in which students take the facts, knowledge, and debate skills they have learned, and begin putting them to use, preparing to launch into the adult world.
Consider each of these descriptions that Sayers puts forth. Does your child’s school put these time-honored learning stages and practices to use? If not, do you think your child is truly getting the well-rounded education that children through the centuries have received?
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