Monday, August 17, 2009

The Trivium: Stages or Skills?


There is, in classical education circles, a discussion over the nature of the Trivium (Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric). Popularized by Dorothy Sayers' essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning," the Trivium forms a key part of what makes a school "classical." Sayers herself understood the Trivium to refer primarily to developmental stages of children: elementary-age children are in the Grammar stage in which teachers capitalize on their memorization abilities. Junior high-age children, Sayers opined, were at the cusp of logical thinking, and thus the Dialectic stage would be geared toward taking advantage of that. Finally, the senior high-age students are in the Rhetoric stage at which they are finally able to express themselves eloquently.

Since Sayers' essay is responsible for much of the revival of classical education, many early proponents of it were advocating this view of the Trivium. However, as the movement has picked up steam, some educators are beginning to think that Sayers' understanding of the Trivium might be slightly off. Rather than seeing it as concerned with playing to developmental stages, this new view considers the three parts of the Trivium to be skills themselves that are utilized all throughout the K-12 educational process. Under this view, Grammar is the skill associated with acquiring facts (rules of English grammar, Latin paradigms, geography, historical events), and the Dialectic stage with the relation of facts (logic, algebra, philosophy, critical thinking). Finally, Rhetoric is the skill of communicating excellently, and thus students study disciplines like speaking, theatre, or music to practice this skill.

The obvious point in this debate is that one can accommodate both views. Sayers' vision of the Trivium as stages does have weight, and can easily be coupled with the Trivium-as-skills view in that in the Grammar stage, a student would not only be encouraged to memorize, study relations (logic) and express himself well (rhetoric), the greater emphasis will be on memorization and the building of the related Grammar skills.

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