a modern day trivium

In the two previous posts, I’ve criticised Martin Robinson’s argument that traditional and progressive education are mutually exclusive approaches characterised by single core values; subject centred and child centred, respectively.

Martin describes himself as an “educationalist with an interest in culture, politics, creativity, and the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric)”. Grammar, logic and rhetoric are the three strands of the mediaeval trivium and Martin’s educational consultancy and his blog are called Trivium 21C. In response to my comments, he suggested I produce a graphical representation of my understanding of the trivium.

liberal arts, trivium and quadrivium

In Ancient Greece and Rome, the liberal arts were the knowledge and skills it was considered essential for a free man to learn in order to participate in civic society. The liberal arts were revived during the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century, in an effort to improve educational and cultural standards across Western Europe. Seven subjects were studied; grammar, logic and rhetoric made up the foundational trivium, and the quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

The trivium essentially trained students to think, and the quadrivium gave them the opportunity to apply their thinking to mathematical concepts (considered fundamental to all knowledge by the Greek philosophers). The seven liberal arts formed the foundation that enabled students to proceed to study theology, medicine or law.

Up until the early 19th century, the body of collective human knowledge was relatively small.   It was possible for a well-educated person to master all of it.   In order to acquire the knowledge, and to understand and apply it, you’d have to learn Latin and probably Greek, and also how scholars (who would have written in Latin) reasoned. The trivium made explicit the structure of language, how language was used to reason, and how to explain and persuade using language.

Since the early 19th century our collective knowledge has expanded enormously and much of that knowledge is recorded in English. There are good reasons why English-speaking students should learn the structure of their native language, how to reason in it, and how to use it to explain and persuade. But those skills wouldn’t be much use without the knowledge to apply them to.

I can see how those principles could be applied to our current body of knowledge, and that’s what I’ve mapped out below.Slide1

Grammar would make explicit the structure of the knowledge (including the structure of language). Logic would make reasoning explicit – and common errors and biases in thinking. (Martin replaces logic with dialectic, a process by which different parties seek to arrive at the truth through reasoned discussion with each other.) Rhetoric would make explicit the representation of knowledge, including how people conceptualise it. Incidentally, the body of knowledge has a fuzzy boundary because although much of it is reliable, some is still uncertain.

modern liberal arts and cultural literacy

Many modern colleges and universities offer liberal arts courses, although what’s entailed varies widely. Whatever the content, the focus of liberal arts is on preparing the student for participation in civic society, as distinct from professional, vocational or technical training.

So… I can see the point of the trivium in its original context. And how the principles of the trivium could be applied to the body of knowledge available in the 21st century. Those principles would provide a practical way of ensuring students had a thorough understanding of the knowledge they were applied to.

But… I do have some concerns about using the trivium to do that. The emphasis of the trivium and of liberal arts education, is on language. Language is the primary vehicle for ideas, so there are very good reasons for students mastering language and its uses. And the purpose of a liberal arts education is to prepare students for life, rather than just for work. There are good reasons for that too; human beings are obviously much more than economic units.

However, language and the ideas it conveys also appears to be the end-point of education for liberal arts advocates, rather than just a means to an end. The content of the education is frequently described as ‘the best which has been thought or said’ (Arnold, 1869), and the purpose to enable students to participate in the ‘conversation of mankind’ (Oakeshott, 1962).

The privileging of words and abstract ideas over the nitty-gritty of everyday life is a characteristic of liberal arts education that runs from Plato through the mediaeval period to the modern day. Plato was primarily concerned with the philosopher king and the philosophers who debated with him, not with people who grew vegetables, made copper pots or traded olive oil.   Charlemagne’s focus was on making sure priests could read the Vulgate and that there were enough skilled scribes to keep records, not in improving technology, or the fortunes of the wool industry.

This dualistic rift still permeates thinking about education as evidenced by the ongoing debate about academic v vocational education. Modern-day liberal arts advocates favour the academic approach because, rightly, they see education as more than preparation for work.   Their emphasis, instead, is on cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is important for everybody because it gives access to ideas. However, the flow of information needs to be in two directions, not just one.

Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.

An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works.  It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.


Arnold, M (1869).  Culture and Anarchy.  Accessed via Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4212/pg4212-images.html

Capra, F and Luisi, PL (2014).  The Systems View of Life, Cambridge University Press (p. 394)

Oakeshott, M (1962).”The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 197-247. Accessed here http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/2.1/features/brent/oakeshot.htm


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