Jason R. Edwards explains the centrality of the Trivium in classical schooling and lays out as many applications in today's classical schools.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Revolutions tend to be noted for radical breaks with tradition and bold new courses set. However, the term “revolution” can also mean a return to an earlier position. Perhaps then, the most radical of revolutions combine elements of both by rejecting the cult of the new, spurning assumed progress, and breaking from the path not for new frontiers but a wise reclaiming of older customs and timeworn wisdom. Revolutionary or not, at the very least, if one finds himself on the wrong path, the only wise course is to simply turn around. The Christian Classical school movement is just such an example. American schooling has been on the wrong road for a very long time, and classical and Christian educators are attempting to turn around and return to wiser approaches to education. In this effort, a formula known as the Trivium has played, and continues to play, an essential part.

Surveying the physical and cultural destruction of Europe in 1947, popular author Dorothy Sayers composed and presented at Oxford her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which shockingly argued that for Western Civilization to truly advance in education, it needed to return to the Medieval Age.1 Her essay emphasized the failings of modern education in preparing people to think and to learn. The abandoned tools of education to Sayers were encapsulated by the medieval commitment to the Trivium. Comprised of grammar, logic/dialectic, and rhetoric, Sayers believed the Trivium held the key for reviving an effective and proven form of learning. Though powerful and persuasive, Sayers’ essay and revolutionary formula would require several more decades before her advocated return gained much traction.

In 1991, Douglas Wilson published the book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and thereby effectively launched the contemporary Classical-Christian school movement.2 At the time of its publishing, Wilson had already worked to apply insights from Sayers’ essay into the private Logos School in Moscow, Idaho. With the publication of his book, many more would look to advance their own children’s education by returning to “old ways.” The Trivium as a formula for education was about to start a revolution.

Revolutions depend on revolutionaries; and, both Sayers and Wilson are essential to this revolution’s success. However, true revolutions are not ultimately defined, controlled, or contained by even crucial individuals and the Classical-Christian school movement is no exception, so it must be understood at the outset that Classical- Christian schooling is not restricted to the thoughts of Sayers or Wilson.3 Likewise, revolutions rarely respect history, even ones inspired by it. Here again, the Classical- Christian school movement follows this revolutionary law. Consequently, exactly how “classical” or “medieval” the movement actually is historically is up for significant debate. Socrates and Aquinas, just to name a few, would not necessarily recognize all that goes on at “classical” schools or even claim them as their own. Nevertheless, history, through the modern interpretation of Sayers and Wilson and others, has provided a very attractive formula for education, which has been enthusiastically adopted in a large and growing number of private schools. And so, to understand what is taking place at these classical academies, one should be aware of how the Trivium is being applied for it arguably remains the distinguishing mark of the contemporary classical school.

Interestingly, the Trivium as applied by schools today has actually taken three main forms. The most obvious and least surprising way is their embrace of the three official subjects of the Trivium. While it would be rare to find a modern public school labeling a course, or perhaps even a lesson, as grammar or logic or rhetoric, one will find all three at contemporary classical schools. Mastering the construction of sentences, memorizing logical fallacies, and effectively using words orally are not only skills emphasized within familiar classes on history or science, they are entire stand-alone courses, oftentimes taken at multiple grade levels, at classical schools.

The second way the Trivium is typically applied at a classical school is far more interpretive. Here, the Trivium is used as a formula for learning any subject. In other words, mastery of a topic will always need to move through three ascending stages of mastery represented by the subjects that comprise the Trivium. If one is to master U.S. history or biology for instance, one must begin by learning the “grammar” of the subject. This grammar is the basic facts, terms, formulas, and language needed to ultimately understand and converse on the topic. Once students have mastered the basic facts, they move to the “dialectic” phase that concentrates on grasping how these facts interrelate. Ideally then, the student moves from a base, or even rote, knowledge to understanding. Finally, mastery requires a concluding step, rhetoric. Here, students progress from understanding a subject for themselves, to being able to effectively communicate the subject to others. For anyone who has ever taught even the most rudimentary of skills, it is obvious that it is one thing to “know” something for yourself, but quite another to be able to explain it effectively to another. The rhetoric phase is an acknowledgement that true mastery of a subject requires that final step of ability. Furthermore, rhetoric at this level also means applying the knowledge (grammar) and understanding (dialectic) already gained across disciplines into practical life. Thereby, the Trivium, applied to any subject, can mark the crucial transitions from ignorance to knowledge, from knowledge to understanding, and finally from understanding to wisdom.

The final way the Trivium is regularly interpreted in contemporary classical schools is as a formula for child development. Simply put, this belief holds that the typical child goes through grammar, dialectic, and rhetorical stages on the road to adulthood. Implicit in this application is that both the teacher and school ought to work with, rather than against, these natural stages of life and learning.

In this child development interpretation, the child begins in a grammar stage that roughly corresponds to the elementary school years. The fact that elementary school used to be widely called “grammar school” is not considered coincidental. As noted above, to master subjects students need to know basic facts about the subject. Conveniently, young children have proven to be outstanding at memorization. Even more remarkable, young children like memorization. Even nonsense words can be mastered with ease and enjoyment by elementary age children, particularly if put to music or chants. For the modern classical educator then, such an opportunity is not to be missed. In contrast, the typical contemporary school philosophy assumes that elementary school students will have plenty of time to learn basic facts in the future or will just naturally learn them through time. Consequently, most elementary schools embrace “play” as the activity de jure for their charges. The classical school instead capitalizes on the young child’s affinity for memorization and gives him a solid diet of significant material on which to work. While unfairly and inaccurately derided as “drill and kill” by advocates of the “play” approach, classical educators seek to have students leave elementary school with a substantial amount of invaluable knowledge stored in their memories. Both history and now contemporary classical schools have more than proven that this knowledge can be mastered in an effective and even pleasurable way especially since the elementary years are the ideal times in which to do it.

In considering the dialectic phase, it perhaps helps to start with a cultural fact: junior high kids are insufferable little wisenheimers. Put more generously, one notes middle schoolers’ propensity for argumentation, contradiction, and verbal gaffes. While educators throughout time have frequently been tempted to deal with this phase by locking them in their rooms until humans can stand to be around them, the contemporary classical educator takes a different course. Though an obviously dangerous act, the classical educator insists that if one wants to argue, then at least one should argue well. So, this “dialectic” stage at the classical school is characterized by instruction in logic, reasoning, and argumentation. While undoubtedly parents must at times regret the arming of these young madmen with more effective verbal weapons, the child’s personality merely demonstrates that the time is developmentally right to do so. Not incidentally, if these young debaters have been brought up with the Trivium, they already have a vast store of valuable knowledge to consider, which makes their verbal wrangling much more palatable and productive. In contrast, their public school peers, who have played their way through elementary school, while still determined
to verbally joust, have nothing to tilt but pop culture windmills.

Finally, according to the developmental approach to the Trivium, after passing through the challenging dialectic phase, young adults arrive at the “rhetorical” phase. In sum, the mark of teenagers is their desire to “express” themselves. However, as one can sadly witness in every mall in America, they are not very good at it. This truth remains despite the fact there are few items that fire the hearts of the typical American public school teacher more than self-expression. However, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, most high school instructors, though enthusiastic, are unknowingly urging the geldings to be fruitful.

Having never given or demanded knowledge of their charges, much less clear thinking in earlier years, most youth, have, like, you know, little to say. In contrast, the classical educator is not left with empty pleas to “express yourself,” since the student brought up in the Trivium has been given the knowledge and understanding along the way necessary for the development of wisdom worth professing. And, here again, the classical educator looks to work with, rather than against, the grain. With students eager to communicate, instruction at classical schools in these teen years focuses on effective expression through, among other things, the spoken and written word. As with the dialectic phase, if a student has been educated throughout in this Trivium model, this focus on expression is potentially delightful because the child actually has a vast array of knowledge and understanding to articulate. While the modern’s obsession with self-expression reflects the fact that essentially all educators desire to produce rhetoricians – wise, eloquent adults – it is the classical Trivium model that actually provides a workable and proven formula to produce them.

In considering the Trivium as a formula for learning and child development, it should be noted that these ought to be understood as broad, general categories not rigidly fixed lines. All courses at all age levels typically would contain grammatical, logical, and rhetorical elements, assignments, and emphases. Again, the Trivium approach argues that mastering any subject necessitates going through these three stages of learning so newly introduced subjects will always require grammatical essentials even for adults. The Trivium is a useful formula, not an inflexible one. Much of the Trivium’s revolutionary power lies in its simplicity and clarity, but also its versatility. Thereby, those seeking to be classical in contemporary times should not feel compelled to follow narrowly a fixed formula to qualify.

When considering accurate labeling, the Trivium has also served to justify the very naming of classical schooling. However, while certainly historically rooted, the Trivium as an organized system of learning is far more medieval than classical. However, no one needs a marketing department to tell them that calling for a return to medieval times proves a much more difficult sales job, so “classical” was, not surprisingly, adopted instead. Since the overwhelming percentage of classical schools are first and foremost Christian schools, this accommodation to modern sensibilities is at least mildly lamentable for it is the medievals who attempted to build a civilization infused with Christianity rather than the ancient pagans of Greece and Rome. Furthermore, while all truth is God’s truth, there is nothing inherently Christian per se in the Trivium especially if your emphasis is on its classical origins which again would mark it as the product of pagans. Nevertheless, because almost all classical schools in the United States are Christian, the terms“Classical-Christian,” or now the more appropriate “Christian-classical,” have become so conjoined that they easily roll off the tongue. Thereby, perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters of medieval times will forgive our snub, if our efforts to provide a truly Christian education to our children run true. And, applying the medieval Trivium to the specifically Christian nature of Christian-classical schools offers one final area of potential application.

Author Stratford Caldecott’s 2012 book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education argues that the Trivium actually reflects the triune nature of God, and he challenges Christian, and particularly Catholic, schools to incorporate this understanding into their schools’ organization and curriculum. Caldecott implicitly criticizes the “tools” metaphor both Sayers and Wilson associated with the Trivium by making the “central idea” of his book “that education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’
in the conventional sense…. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of the word).”4 Caldecott’s work suggests the Trivium’s value as a formula could easily surpass the three primary ways described above by helping students and adults
alike understand the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Caldecott, in fact, offers the following “eight threes” inspired from the Trivium for educators to consider and apply:

Mythos Grammar Remembering Music/Dance One

True Given Father

Logos Dialectic Thinking Visual Arts True

Good Received Son

Ethos Rhetoric Speaking Drama Good Beautiful Shared Spirit5

A detailed account of Caldecott’s argument for these “eight threes” is beyond the scope of this brief essay, but at a minimum Caldecott’s work demonstrates that the revolutionary power of this “simple” formula known as the Trivium shows no sign of losing its potency or applicability. As committed Christians continue to mine the wisdom of the past and the Trivium’s formulaic potential, the prospects for truly Christian education to flourish only brighten.6 As a productive revolution, the Christian-classical movement, with the help of authors such as Dorothy Sayers and Douglas Wilson, has helped many parents and concerned citizens recognize that American education is hurtling down the wrong path. Thankfully, the Trivium has served as a simple but powerful formula of return to a better and more proven course. Through the insights of Caldecott and others, the Trivium should continue to provide an even more robust vision of an education worthy of creatures made in the image of God.

Viva la Revolucion!