Influence of the Trivium

The Trivium was the foundation of classical education, based on a Greco-Roman model developed during the Middle Ages.

Today, the meaning of a classical education is often unconsciously corrupted by a superficial understanding of what is “classical.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the acceptance of the notion that the Trivium—grammar, logic, rhetoric—identifies only stages of learning. Such a re-definition of the Trivium may be a helpful paradigm to illustrate different stages of learning—as done, notably, by author Dorothy Sayers in a 1947 address at Oxford—but it has little to do with the original meaning of the term “Trivium.” The Trivium was the foundation of classical education, based on a Greco-Roman model developed during the Middle Ages. It consisted of the “aspects of the liberal arts that pertain to the training of the mind.” What is most important about the Trivium is not that it organizes a curriculum or provides a rigid formula for stages of cognitive development, but that it centers on language: grammar—learning the basics of language; logic—learning to organize language to express one’s ideas cohesively; and rhetoric—learning to articulate logically sound arguments in grammatically correct and eloquent language. Those are the components of the Trivium, but grammar, logic, and rhetoric are not the ultimate goals of a classical education. Indeed, to quote Sayers, “The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to ‘subjects’ at all.”

Providence’s curriculum is informed by a proper understanding of both the Trivium and Sayers’s analogy of the Trivium to the stages of learning. In the lower class levels—and this greatly distinguishes a Providence education from the “progressive” model found in most schools today—the emphasis is on facts and memory work. Thus, all courses of study begin with basic information—whether phonograms, math facts, maps, or butterfly specimens. As students mature, the coursework focuses additionally on gathering and interpreting information and on its limitations and logical implications. Ultimately, students learn to articulately present what they have learned, both orally and in writing. But Providence students develop through all the stages discussed by Sayers almost from the beginning, as younger students not only learn facts but also reason from and write about what they have learned, and older students continue to add new, more complex factual information to their store of knowledge in all of their studies.

Therefore, a key feature that distinguishes a Providence education from most modern approaches is that its students are carefully trained in language, that actual content forms its basis, and that reason and God’s Truth, rather than “feelings,” govern the conclusions students reach.


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