Friday, June 21, 2013

What in the World Is the Trivium?



Asphodel
My heart rouses
        thinking to bring you news

                         of something
that concerns you
        and concerns many men. Look at
                         what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
        despised poems.
                         It is difficult
to get the news from poems
         yet men die miserably every day
                          for lack
of what is found there.

             ~ from Asphodel- That Greeny Flower  
                 by William Carlos Williams

 
'"Teach the Trivium." This has been a catchphrase of the classical education movement. Most people can tell it means three of something. But most people I encounter in our homeschooling circles are still very confused about what exactly ‘classical education’ or trivium mean. The Latin word trivium literally means “three roads" and was used to mean where three roads meet. The original use of the term for education was as an indication of the unity of the three aspects of the art of communication: the verbal arts.   

Many people now define the term trivium as a method (I am reminded of Ellul’s book on the modern rule of techne)--a technique of teaching that uses developmental stages, which I won't detail here. I'm sure you've probably heard the concept a few times. But throughout the centuries, since the Middle Ages, there were two 'stages' of education, the trivium and the quadrivium. The three subjects of the trivium were "grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric." When these were mastered a student went on to study the quadrivium--the four subjects: geometry, astronomy, music and arithmetic.  Together these made up what were known as the "seven liberal arts." Obviously (with the changing times) we need to change or add to some of the subjects, but when it comes to the first three, there seems to me to be something essential to education about these three in one...

1- Grammar: pursuing the parts of language so that a thought may develop. The first is working with individual words, phrases, and sentences. Doing such things as naming the different parts of speech, learn the meanings of words, and writing a sentence.

2- Dialectic/Logic: pursuing the syllogism, study of sentences and their relationship to each other, so that a new thought may be asserted. It is learning to put together units of thought (syllogism official logical terminology for the sake of the audience).....Taking a few sentences (premises) and coming up with a thesis and a conclusion.

3- Rhetoric: the pursuit of communication: turning these ideas around with others, in order to develop those new thoughts into a culture. This is the culmination of the use of language. And this is where the group comes in, and others to connect with is so crucial! Once a student has gotten a mastery of the first two, he or she can begin to effectively communicate and create ideas with others. We ultimately want to communicate with people in the flesh, but the student does not often have an appropriate friend or mentor to exchange ideas with, so this is why books are so important. The “others” may often be “other minds” via literature, this has been the most effective medium of communication of ideas in our culture for a long time. (more on this later)
 
Now, compare this process above with the rudimentary forms of these subjects that are left in our contemporary curriculum. We have divorced the study of vocabulary from any study of grammar or sentence analysis. We have taken a few principles of composition to make a quick and easy writing lesson. We are content with having quickly gotten the kids to cover this, so that we can be sure to spend many hours attempting to cram lots of data about many subjects in the child's head. Is this supposed to be more interesting for them? Is it supposed to show them off to the world? See what I know? Has a trivial pursuit been substituted for the pursuit of the trivium?

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