Teaching the Trivium

A few months ago, we moved out of Washington, D.C., to be closer to where we’ll be sending our children to school. That decision wasn’t just made because it’s our parish school or because many DC public schools have serious problems. Prior to getting married, my husband and I separately served on the school board that oversaw the change in our parish school’s curriculum to a Classical approach. It was a large undertaking but we couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

From my experience, I know that the Classical movement is sizable and under-covered by major media. So I was completely delighted to read about a new Classical school in the area in a recent Washington Post. Written by Julia Duin, it begins with an anecdote that shows how Classical education works:

It’s 1 p.m. and time for Amy Clayton’s fifth grade to show off their memorization skills.

Decked out in blue long-sleeved shirts and dark pants for boys and bright yellow blouses and plaid jumpers for girls, the students begin with the words of Patrick Henry’s immortal “Give me liberty or give me death” speech first delivered on March 23, 1775, in Richmond. That recitation merges into verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” That morphs into a few phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and finally to fragments of speeches by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

“Beautifully done,” Clayton says at the conclusion. “We just encapsulated 80 years of American history in our recitation.” She is engaged, dramatic, and students are nearly jumping out of their seats trying to answer her questions about the beginnings of the Civil War. To her right is a banner containing a quote from Aesop: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Near that hangs a crucifix.

The article tells the story of St. Jerome Classical School, a once struggling Roman Catholic elementary and middle school in Hyattsville, Maryland. We learn about how the change was made. A school in Texas that served as the model for the change is also described in detail. The story does an excellent job of balancing the individual story of the school with helpful information about a dramatically different approach to education. I know from experience that it can take time and nuance to explain the approach. Duin does it here:

Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included. …

In the “logic” stage (roughly grades five through eight), children learn to analyze, question, discern and evaluate. Students learn to think through arguments, pay attention to cause and effect and begin to see how facts fit together. This is where the study of algebra and how to propose and support a thesis comes in.

The “rhetoric” stage (grades nine through 12) concentrates on acquiring wisdom and applying knowledge. Students learn to express themselves persuasively.

In Michael Murray’s fourth-grade class, students are moving into the logic stage using focused discussion. They have just read from Plato’s “The Republic” about how people behave when they think no one is watching.

The article gives plenty of examples of how these stages work in action. We learn about the Latin basis of the program. We learn about the qualifications of the teachers at the school. We learn how a Catholic school handles instructions about non-Catholic religious systems. We even see a quote from a GetReligion reader involved with the school! My one question about the story was why it focused almost exclusively on Roman Catholic schools. Here’s the only mention:

The organizers knew of only one other Catholic parochial school — St. Theresa’s in Sugar Land, Tex. — that was trying this method. About 230 other classical schools in the country were mostly run by evangelical Protestants.

But there’s no discussion of these other schools, even though many of them are here in the area. The article intentionally focuses on just the story of this school. In an NPR interview I listened to after the story ran, it was clear that Duin was knowledgeable about the broader story involving other Christians. Here is just one of the several snippets from the interview with Michel Martin discussing Protestant embrace of the model:

MARTIN: OK. And what do parents like about it? One of the things you point out in the piece is that – and I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned earlier, which is that a number of Evangelical Protestant schools seem to have embraced this method of education first, and I’m curious why you think that is. But what is it that parents are drawn to?

Ms. DUIN: Well, it’s a great method of education. I mean, the kids don’t get fluff. I saw things going on where they were studying Greek history and Roman -there were – the maps of Ancient Rome up on school walls. On the walls of this school, they would have the virtues listed: Truth, goodness, beauty. Again, like one of the people in the article said: We don’t have Snoopy on our walls here. Not that they’re anti Harry Potter or Snoopy.

I mean, they have Harry Potter books in the library. So, they’re not, like, retro in that sense. But they really feel that the classics have eternal truths in them that schools would be doing really well to incorporate in their curriculum.

MARTIN: But what about people like, you know, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass and, you know, modern-day people that other people feel – many people feel would be important to learn about too?

Ms. DUIN: Oh, they do. They do go through history. I mean, I was listening to them recite speeches. In fact, they had a speech by Frederick Douglass that they were having to recite by heart. But same thing about Abraham Lincoln, too. So they don’t ignore history, but they do a lot of referrals back to Greek and Roman

The whole topic has been discussed in detail in niche press, including Christian press. But it’s wonderful to see the Washington Post and NPR inform readers and listeners about this story that is so significant in the lives of many families around the country.

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  • Jerry

    The link to the Washington Post story is missing.

    The NPR story has a science problem. The trivium is mentioned as a model for cognitive development, but I wondered if that is in accord with best current understanding of how children’s cognitive abilities develop.

    And while your post sees the story through religion eyes, the NPR story also mentioned that public schools are adopting this approach.

    Finally, are there other voices in the story besides those who think that this is a wonderful approach? Where is the discussion about other approaches compared to this one and a comparison of results?

  • http://www.colorado.edu/honors/kopff.html Christian Kopff

    Dear Jerry,
    I’ll proceed hysteron proteron homerikos:
    The opposite of Classical Education is Deweyite or Progressive or child-centered Education, where content is secondary, since children can learn about themselves from almost any subject. Teachers organize activities that will encourage children to grow in self-awareness. In Classical Education teachers teach time-tested subjects and texts in a definite prescribed order.
    Classical Education is most commonly found in public schools in classical charters. Colorado and Arizona are two states where there has been growth in this area. This Denver POST story discusses a fairly recent classical charter in Colorado Springs. There are more established ones as well. http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_17417694
    IMHO science has a Classical Education problem. Most of the great scientists from the sixteenth century, e.g., Copernicus, up to the twentieth century, e.g., Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, had classical education. Many problems STEM subjects are now facing are due to the relative rarity of a classical background in students and faculty.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Thanks, I added the link.

    And I think that future stories on this topic could definitely debate the relative benefits of Classical Education and Progressive Education. In this case, there was a lot of ground to cover about an individual school. The conflicts for this particular school were covered. But certainly if this were longer or covering the broader trend, one might expect to see both more dissenting voices and more advocates, too.

  • Jerry

    I spent some time this afternoon trying to learn more about any scientific research of ‘trivium’ teaching. I could not find anything. But I did find that apparently such schools have not gone back to teaching as it was known before the 60′s but all the way back to the medieval period and wrote a curriculum around a teaching method from that period. What should have therefore been covered as a discussion about how that teaching method from the very far past differed from that in use in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    That is to my mind at this point a very serious hole in the story.

  • http://thefrailestthing.com Mike

    Many thanks for pointing out this coverage of classical education. I’ve taught in a variety of contexts over the last 10+ years including a school founded on the classical model. It seems to me that the classical revival is one of the more encouraging developments in American education. For those who are interested, you may want to take a look at Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which is something of a founding document for the movement.

  • Leslie McCrea

    Actually, classical education is not about cognitive stages of development. That theory of the Trivium is fairly modern and was suggested by Dorothy Sayers in her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” The Trivium refers to Latin grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. She saw stages of intellectual development in the student as analagous to the stages of the Trivium, but it isn’t really the heart of classical education.

    At the core, classical education is about developing the man inside the child. It is about virtue, and learning to be human. It seeks to understand truth, beauty and goodness in all the world. It recognizes both formal and final causes. Unlike modern education, which recognizes only material and efficient causes, and seeks to make workers, by manipulating the material(student) by the latest scientific techniques. Also unlike modern education, classical education recognizes differences and hierarchies; it is not egalitarian. Some ideas are better than others and classical education proclaims that truth boldly. The classical teacher serves as a model for his students, and he teaches dialectically by posing questions for them to consider about the most important ideas in life. He then allows his students to discover truth by eliminating all the false answers to those questions. In the process they learn to think deeply and to understand broadly, and to love their neighbors as themselves.

    Finally, classical education is Christian. It recognizes the truth about human nature, than man is fallen. The classical teacher holds every character, every action, every artifact up to the Ideal type to see how it measures up. It never asks simply, “What is man?” but always, “What should man be?” It isn’t satisfied with “How do we live?” but always seeks to understand, “How should we then live?” The Greeks (and Romans through them) recognized the Ideal type but their heroes always fell short. Homer knew it, Plato knew it, Virgil knew it. Only Christianity was able to provide the Ideal type in the god man Jesus Christ.

    That is why evangelical Protestants like Classical Education!

  • R9

    “incorporation into the whole treasure of Christian wisdom”…”teaching the disadvantages of polytheism”.

    So, yeah. Interesting piece and for all I know this could be a sound method of education. But it this perspective from from non-fans. Also I wonder if it could be applied without the christian angle.

  • Julia

    In a word: Jesuits! This is what was required of all students at Jesuit schools no matter what your major – before they gave up education and discovered social work.

    It was picked up and promoted by Mortimer Adler at U of Chicago (who became a Catholic at the end of his life). My father’s prized possession was his Great Books, from which he challenged me (among other things) to answer Schopenhauer’s opinions on women – in the very early 1960s before Women’s Lib. It sure got me to thinking and learning to speak on my feet. I have my own set now (eldest brother grabbed dad’s set) and my eldest wants them when I pass.

    The medieval Catholic universities – this is where the term “humanities” was coined. My Jesuit uncles told me that dissertations in Jesuit institutions (and those in Europe) were presented and defended from all comers in Latin until sometime in the 20th century. It was great sport to watch and join in such encounters, they told me.

    You can use all the fancy terminology you want, but this is Catholic education pre-Vatican II; afterward it was all about being nice to each other and socialism – just like the public schools with their Dewey.

    Very strange that it’s Evangelicals who are rescuing the valuable aspects of pre-VII Catholic schools.

  • Julia

    Sorry. I shouldn’t have limited it to Jesuit education, but that’s the type that is most emblematic of classical education in the recent past.

  • R9

    haha, horrific posting fail from lack of paying attention to what i type.

    But it could do with some perspective from from non-fans.

    is what I meant to say.