Friday, August 15, 2014

The Trivium: Instructions for Living a Life

Be Astonished


The word trivium means, very simply, “three roads” or “three ways.”

[You probably already know that tri means “three” and via means “by way of.”]


In the context of Classical Education, the word trivium is often used in three different ways.

  • As the first three of the seven liberal ARTS (or skills)
  • As STAGES of childhood development
  • As the STAGES of learning


:: Liberal Arts ~ Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric

The tradition of the seven liberal arts began with the Ancient Greeks and was further developed during the Middle Ages.

The trivium consists of the first three of the liberal arts—grammar, logic or dialectic, and rhetoric—which are linguistic. [The quadrivium consists of the remaining four mathematical or physical arts.]

What is an art?

Andrew Kern defines an art as a system of patterns, derived from experience by means of reason, a way of doing something governed by reason. An art in this context is a skill or formal subject of study.

‘According to Hugh of Saint Victor [during the Middle Ages], “Grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is clear-sighted argument which separates the true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing.”’ [from Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott]

The arts of the trivium are systems of patterns, governed by reason, by which we speak well, think well, and communicate well.

The Ancient Greeks did not invent these patterns; they observed the systems by which human nature naturally used language well. The patterns are the tools by which we as humans perceive reality.

Why liberal?

The liberal arts were considered the essential skills of a free person (from the Latin liber which means “free”).


:: Stages of Development ~ Poll-parrot, Pert, Poetic

Dorothy Sayers, in her 1948 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, asserts that the arts of the trivium correspond well to three stages of development in childhood and adolescence. 

“Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognise in myself three stages of development. These, in a rough-and-ready fashion, I will call the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic—the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorises the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert Age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent) is only too familiar to all who have to do with children: it is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to "catch people out" (especially one's elders) and in the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them). Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Lower Fourth. The Poetic Age is popularly known as the "difficult" age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching-out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the lay-out of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.”


:: Stages of Learning ~ Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric

When we learn a new subject or skill—French history, knitting, Hebrew, glass-blowing, linear algebra, or skin care—we must start at the beginning regardless of our age.

During the grammar stage of learning we gather the facts, vocabulary, definitions, stories, and basic knowledge of the subject. The logic or dialectic stage is when we begin to ask questions such as “why?” and “how?”, compare and contrast, find relationships between facts and ideas, and gain experience by trial and error. The rhetoric stage is the end result of our studies, when we integrate ideas, apply what we’ve learned, create original artifacts, and share with or teach others.

The stage of rhetoric is the culmination of study.

In The Office of Assertion, Scott Crider states, “Rhetoric is a productive art, the principled process of making a product.”

The Rhetoric Companion challenges us by asking, “What’s the point of ideas, if those ideas are never made flesh?”


The gift of the trivium is part of our essential human nature, given to us as souls made in the image of “I AM,” the Creator, the LOGOS.

We have been given the gift of language—of naming, of contemplating, of creating.

Psalm 33:6 “By the word (Logos) of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.”

John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”

Merriam Webster defines logos as “the divine wisdom manifest in the creation, government, and redemption of the world.” The word logos comes from the Greek, meaning “speech, word, or reason.”

Genesis 1:27 “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 2:19 “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”

And we have been given the gift of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

Proverbs 2:6 “For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”


:: Biblical Model ~ Knowledge, Understanding, Wisdom

How often have you read those three words together in the Bible?

Knowledge: the sum of what is known; the body of truth, information, and principles acquired by humankind

Understanding: the mental process of a person who understands; comprehension; personal interpretation

Wisdom: the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight


Echoes of the Trivium

I have found the essence of the trivium echoed over and over again in the course of my reading and studies.


:: Body, Mind, Spirit

Using one’s senses [body] to observe the world around us.

Using one’s mind to process ideas.

Using one’s spirit to discern truth and apply it.


:: Presentation, Comparison, Incarnation

Andrew Kern applies the stages of learning to the microcosm of individual lessons with his “Liturgy of Learning.”

1. Invitation (the teacher determines student readiness)

2. Presentation (the teacher shows particular types or models such as various addition problems)

3. Comparison (the student imitates and then compares with the teacher’s model)

4. Definition/Expression (the student puts into own words what he or she has learned)

5. Embodiment/Incarnation (student embodies artifact, presents original or independent creation)


:: What, Why, Whether [Or Concepts, Reasoning, Judgments]

Peter Kreeft says, “Concepts tell us what. Reasoning tells us why. Judgments tell us whether.”

[I took those notes when watching a video of a lecture about judgments, and now I can’t locate it. You can read a shorter transcript of that lecture, Living Well On Earth and Entering Heaven: The Nineteen Types of Judgment by Peter Kreeft.]

Andrew Kern says that wisdom is the ability to make judgments, and we’re exploring the “whether” judgment with The Lost Tools of Writing.

“Who cares if Jane runs? I sure don’t. But everybody wants to know whether the ants should have fed the grasshopper, whether Caesar should have crossed the Rubicon, and whether Odysseus should have slaughtered the suitors. These things matter because they arouse the right questions. They help students clarify their thoughts about what is just and fair, what is wise and prudent, and what is noble and honorable.” ~Andrew Kern


:: Information, Imagination, Creation

From Imagionality: Understanding Your Child’s Imaginative Personality by Clay Clarkson @ Story Warren:

“Here’s a pattern from the Genesis creation account that I want to suggest: Information, Imagination, Creation. In other words, information feeds imagination which fuels creation. If our core personality is all about mentally processing information—how we gather it, and how we act on it—then God’s order of creation seems to suggest that imagination is not just a product of our mental processes, but rather an inherent capacity within us. Imagination stands apart from personality.”


:: Memory, Thought, Speech

Stratford Caldecott:

“The key for me was to discover that the three elements of the Trivium link us directly with three basic dimensions of our humanity. No wonder they are so fundamental in classical education! ...To become fully human we need to discover who we are (Memory), to engage in a continual search for truth (Thought), and to communicate with others (Speech)."


:: Input, Processing, Output

Who doesn’t deal with technology on a daily basis?


:: Tools, Skills, Creativity

What Does Creativity Have to Do With Classical Education? by Briana Elizabeth @ Sandbox to Socrates

“What I had given them was the scaffold to be creative. I taught them the skills (rhyme and meter) and gave them the tools (hearing poetry and a deep well of ideas).

“Now, how can I more purposely build a scaffold, and foster even deeper creativity? What kind of schoolwork is making the creativity for them, and what type of schoolwork is giving them the ability to create with the skills and tools they’ve learned? What type of schoolwork enables them to behold glory and represent that glory in their own medium?”


:: Knowledge, Comprehension, Evaluation

Blooms Taxonomy initially presented a framework of six categories of knowledge, skills, and abilities: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Knowledge and comprehension created the foundation, with evaluation being the highest level of ability. The framework has since been revised with the verbs Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. [The link shows what skills and abilities fall under each category.]


    :: Reading, Reflection, Response, [Rest]

    Lectio Divina is a traditional Benedictine practice of reading Scriptures.

    “[T]he first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us…

    “The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.

    “The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.”

    [“The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God.”]


    :: Lectio, Meditatio, Compositi

    The Liturgical Classroom and Virtue Formation by Jenny Rallens (video lecture)


    :: Research, Record, Relate

    Two Jobs All Our Kids Will Have by Jennifer Courtney @ Classical Conversations

    “In order to become responsible voters, students must be trained to research, record, and relate. In other words, they must research issues in order to make informed voting decisions. They must be able to record their findings in an organized way in order to shape them into a logical argument. Finally, they must be able to relate their ideas to others in order to be leaders.

    “In order to become effective ministers of the Gospel, our students must engage these same skills. They must search Scripture to refine answers to the questions of our times (research). They must memorize Scripture and form logical arguments in defense of their faith (record).  Finally, they must share The Truth with others (relate).”


    :: Perceive, Pursue, Proclaim

    The Classical Conversations Rhetoric Trivium Table defines rhetoric as “the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.”


    :: Prepare, Practice, Pass it On

    If you attended a Classical Conversations Parent Practicum this year, you very likely heard the trivium expressed in these words.


    And, in closing, “Instructions for living a life” by American poet Mary Oliver:


    Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.


    I think that sums it up nicely.


    Have you noticed echoes of the trivium in your life and studies?


    Jennifer said...

    Wow! Thank you so much for sharing. What an incredible discussion of the trivium. I will be rereading this for days, feasting on all the gold nuggets within. Thank you!

    Heidi said...

    Thanks for the kind words, Jennifer! I was surprised to discover your comment here as I just this past week discovered your blog and loved your blog post on CiRCE. Thank *you* for your soul-healing words!

    aliyaa said...
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