Posted July 7, 2015

Trivium Education

As the classical education movement continues to spread, many families have heard the phrase “Trivium education.” Trivium education refers to the classical, Christian education that dominated Western civilization from the fall of Rome in 476 AD to the Enlightenment.

During this time period, education focused on training students in the seven liberal arts. These seven liberal arts were divided into the Trivium (arts of language) and the Quadrivium (arts of number). There were three Trivium arts: grammar, logic (sometimes called dialectic), and rhetoric. There were four Quadrivium arts: harmonics (music), astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic.

Translated from Latin, the word Trivium means “three roads,” and the word Quadrivium means “four roads.” These liberal arts were considered to be the seven roads toward the philosophical and natural sciences and then to theology (the mistress science). These roads led students to wisdom and virtue.

In the early 1980s, private classical schools and home educators became involved in a revival of classical education. At that time, they picked up the idea of the Trivium education from a speech delivered by Dorothy Sayers at Oxford University in 1947. Her speech, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” gave somewhat of a new spin on the old idea of Trivium education. She likened the three paths of the Trivium to three stages of child development, which she called “poll-parrot,” “pert,” and “poetic.”

She argued that children learn best in the poll-parrot stages by mimicking adults through repetition, songs, chants, or copywork. In the pert stage of Trivium education, students learn best by studying formal logic and forming arguments through oral debates and written essays. In the poetic stage, students learn best through self-expression, writing their own poetry, applying math concepts to physics and engineering, teaching their peers, delivering speeches and lectures, translating original Latin texts and more.

Thirty years ago, Sayers’s new application of the idea of Trivium education was picked up and practiced by new waves of classical schools and home schools. Even today, many people use the phrase Trivium education synonymously with classical education.

This application has been successful for classical schools and home schools because Sayers’s idea of Trivium education, while it didn’t resemble the medieval idea of the Trivium, does accurately describe the learning stages of children. Today, classical educators are still working to reclaim the original ideas of Trivium education from the church schools of the Middle Ages and the academies of the classical word.

At its heart, Trivium education remains centered on the idea that understanding language, learning to think well, and learning to communicate well should be high priorities for the well-educated student. A Trivium education spends much time training students in the grammar of their own language and of foreign languages so that they understand the structure of language itself. This is what is meant by the Trivium art of grammar.

Students must also learn to use language to articulate logical thoughts. They must practice the skill of forming logical arguments and of dissecting the logical arguments of others, looking for fallacies and bad reasoning. This is the second part of Trivium education—the art of logic. So, in a modern Trivium education, students take multiple courses in formal and informal logic.

Finally, students in a Trivium education are expected to express themselves well as they seek to persuade others of the truth. This is the art of rhetoric. A solid Trivium education will expose students to lots of good literature so that they develop a refined style of using language. They practice these skills by writing and speaking frequently. They are expected to write persuasive essays, research papers, and original poems and short stories and to engage in policy and Lincoln–Douglas debates.

In conclusion, a Trivium education is focused on the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The goal is to produce students who read well, think well, and lead themselves and others well.

Author: Jennifer Courtney


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- The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers

- Classical Christian Education Made Approachable

- The Trivium Trilogy by Leigh Bortins

- Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America by Andrew Kern and Gene Edward Veith