Working With the Grain

Two weeks ago I wrote briefly about classical education. I explained that this kind of schooling uses a very old method called the trivium, a method that probably scares contemporary educators. I mentioned that Arenda and I are considering homeschooling in order to give our children this kind of education. I quoted a passage that claimed that fitting boys for the modern world is a very wicked thing indeed. I also said that I’d write more on the subject, so here it is.

I will make this post about the trivium. Dorothy Sayers published an essay in 1948 called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” You can find it online, and it’s worth at least two or three reads. In it she explains what the trivium is, and she explains it so sensibly it’s a wonder people ever stopped using it. The trivium, as you could tell from the “tri-“ prefix, divides basic education into three parts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Sayers describes how each of the three divisions lines up with the natural development of a child.

When kids are young they want to know what everything is. So much around them is nameless, and their minds are working hard at sorting it all out. They love songs and chants and stories because those devices reveal the mysteries that press from all sides. Name by name, label by label, the world is uncovered to them. So why not use this to aid education? If kids at that age want facts, then give them facts. Give them lists and lists of raw material, from Bible verses to Latin vocabulary to theological terms, to names, and dates, and places. This is the grammar stage of a classical education, and it’s heavy on memorization. Every subject has a “grammar,” a vocabulary that needs to be mastered before moving on, whether the subject is music or history or science. The point is not whether the children understand everything they are memorizing, for that will come as they grow. Instead, the grammar stage is about taking advantage of the remarkable retention that kids during this stage are capable of.

At some point, children outgrow this and they begin thinking for themselves. That is, they learn to talk back and argue. Again, Sayers asks, why not harness this for the purpose of education? Teach them how to argue. Show them how logic works, what fallacies look like, how to dismantle a faulty argument and reassemble it so that it works. This is the logic stage of classical education, and this is the point at which students begin taking ownership of all the material you gave them during the grammar stage. They are beginning to make connections, and it’s important that they learn to make them properly.

And then come the years where children become self-conscious about who they are and how they appear to others. Their clothes are important, their hair is important, their tastes in music are important. This too, argues Sayers, is perfectly natural and is appropriate for the final stage in the trivium, the rhetoric stage. The students’ minds are full of knowledge, the knowledge is properly organized, and now comes the time to commend that knowledge to others. This is where students learn how to be persuasive, not just knowing how to argue but knowing how to argue convincingly. Style is important here, as well as principles of beauty and design. Students learn here that truth has a human, relational element, that it doesn’t exist merely in the abstract but takes concrete form in words, music, pictures, and equations. When the student has finished the rhetoric stage he has finished the trivium. At this point, Sayers explains, the student will have come to master the tools of learning.

This mastery is important because we all use the tools, however roughly. The trivium is the pattern of learning every one of us applies to new subjects and situations. I can use my years at the cabinet door shop as an example. The grammar stage was learning what everything was called. There was a table saw, a chop saw, a radial arm saw, an end jointer, a belt sander, a hand sander, a planer, and an assembly bench. I had to learn the difference between maple, cherry, black walnut, red oak, white oak, hickory, pine, fir, and padouk. Then came the logic stage where I learned how all of this stuff actually worked. I spent countless hours on all those tools with all those woods, becoming familiar with how certain woods responded to certain machines and all the various quirks involved. Finally, having learned all that, I could use what I knew to build things of my own design. I designed and built our queen-sized bed out of solid cherry, for example.

So the trivium works with our natural patterns of learning, enabling us later in life to be more effective in engaging what we aren’t familiar with, and equipping us to use that knowledge more intelligently. If you’d like to see what a school using the trivium looks like in its operation, you can check out the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho:

Logos School



2 thoughts on “Working With the Grain

  1. Well. I can certainly agree with this point! Looking forward to hearing the rest! But….rather than opting for homeschooling, wouldn’t it be more responsible to care for “all” (we are in a covenant together, aren”t we?) your children and sharing this tool?Just something to consider….

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