I have several children under the age of ten, and I often find myself teaching them what classical educators have called the Trivium: the arts of language, reasoning, and expression. To cite one example, my five-year old daughter and I were on our way out to milk the cow the other night when she noticed how the clouds were moving quickly past the moon. But to her it was not the clouds moving but rather the moon. After my attempt to explain the basics facts of what she was seeing — the basic “grammar” of astronomy — she proceeded to ask why it looked like the moon was moving even though it was just the clouds. On to the logic of astronomy…
There is something quite natural going here, something that points to the roots of the Trivium in human nature. There is nothing faddish about the Trivium. It is an approach to learning that dates back to the Middle Ages and is rooted in the broader commitment to teaching the whole person – a commitment that we find in the biblical injunction to teach children to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Trivium is time-tested. Its competitors in the educational marketplace are not.
However, one key reason for the recent success and growth of classical Christian schools is not simply the recovery of the Trivium, but that it is being implemented in new ways. Owing largely to the impact of Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” it has become commonplace to teach the Trivium as a series of stages that correspond to natural stages of child development. Hence the “grammar stage” introduces the elementary-level student to the basic language (grammar and vocabulary) of every subject, taking advantage of the child’s natural disposition to quickly absorb information. During the “dialectic stage,” roughly corresponding to middle school, the student is ready to discover a more systematic understanding of each subject. The subject becomes to him, not just a set of discrete truths, but an organic whole. He is ready to move beyond what is true and learn why things are true. And, lastly, the “rhetoric stage” trains the high-school aged student in the art of communicating truth to others at a time when students are quite eager for social interaction and engagement. As Douglas Wilson has summarized, “we begin with rote memorization, move on to categorization, and conclude with presentation.”
By linking the Trivium with stages of development, Sayers undoubtedly makes a key contribution to the fundamentals of classical instruction. But it is a contribution, a new insight not readily available in older texts. According to traditional understanding and practice, the Trivium consists of the foundational arts (or skills) of the mind without reference to learning stages in particular. For example, the educational program of John Amos Comenius, the great Moravian bishop and educator, did not incorporate the Trivium until students reached the Gymnasium, that is, the school for students between twelve and eighteen years of age. For Comenius, a solid foundation in all three of the Trivium’s disciplines was to be provided to teenagers rather than broken up into distinct stages beginning earlier in childhood. Comenius’ approach accords with the writings of Cicero (and others) who insisted on the simultaneous instruction of logic and rhetoric.
In short, the main idea of the older tradition seems to be that the Trivium is best taught when its three disciplines are taught together. What Comenius seems to have noticed is that simultaneous age-appropriate training in the grammatical, dialectical, and rhetorical arts is mutually enhancing, each one reinforcing and sharpening the other. It is good when an elementary student can identify Fern as the protagonist of Charlotte’s Web; it is even better if the student also has the opportunity to engage whether Fern’s protest against her father over the fate of a pig was right or appropriate. In thinking through the latter question, the student grows in his understanding of Fern as the protagonist, the centrality of her character in the story’s plot. Moreover, the latter question is not any more out of place or unnatural than the first; and while the student’s response will likely be lacking in depth and eloquence relative to that of a middle or high schooler, it is no less a genuine act of reason, an attempt at the art of logic.
While Sayers does not reject this insight, there are two potential dangers latent in her approach based on stages. First, one might assume that grammar ought to be taught to the exclusion of logic and rhetoric because the students are not old enough for the latter two arts; and, second, one might assume that students who have moved beyond the grammar stage are now “done with grammar.” In truth, one’s basic grasp of a subject’s grammar and vocabulary will expand (and deepen) as one pursues increasingly advanced and abstract understandings of the subject.
Neither problem follows necessarily from Sayers’ approach; indeed, her essay admits of a “rough and ready” presentation, with no hard and fast rules for the grammar-to-logic-to-rhetoric progression. I suspect, rather, it is our penchant for simple models that leads us to an overly simplified pedagogy. The three-stage progression model is clean and neat. But human beings have a tendency to thwart clean and neat models. My daughter did just that the other night when we got to talking about the heavens.
Dr. Tom Vierra teaches courses in The Great Conversation, Logic, and Rhetoric and is part of the administrative staff at WHA.