On the Trivium:
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Historic & Modern Application
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 childs first school. In the classical world, a childs 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
Which translated, means:
Grammar talks, Dialectic teaches words, Rhetoric
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.
Britannica on the History of Education