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The Four Approaches to Classical Christian Education, Part 3: The Trivium-as-Stages Approach

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series

"Classical Christian Education: Four Distinct Approaches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

classical approaches header

In this series, I am discussing the four different ways that evangelicals are doing classical Christian education (CCE) in 2015. In my first post, I asserted that CCE has come a long way in the 30-plus years since Doug Wilson wrote Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. I would argue that CCE has grown beyond a mere understanding of the Trivium. In my second post I put forth some definitions of classical Christian education to ponder as we begin this discussion.

In today’s post, I’m going back to where it all started (or re-started; please understand that CCE has been around for millennia, but it’s modern resurgence began in the early 1980’s). I’m going to talk about the much-beloved Trivium. What is it in actuality? What did Dorothy Sayers re-define it as (for those who don’t know)? How is it helpful? How is it limiting? What are the different curricular approaches that have developed just within the Trivium version of CCE?

This is the most frequently used (and frequently discussed) approach to modern classical Christian education. There’s a lot out there on this approach these days, but I will try to keep this as concise as possible. So, without further ado, let us embark.

What is the Trivium?

I’m going to save some of my brain power and defer this one to the learned people at CiRCE. On their handy-dandy definitions page, they say:

THE TRIVIUM consists of the three verbal arts of grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. Grammar comes from the Greek word “grammatikos,” which is best translated “letters” and carries all the meanings of our own word “letters.” Grammar cultivates the skill of interpreting symbols. First we interpret individual letters or phonemes, then we interpret words, and ultimately we interpret texts, works of art, and artifacts. Dialectic, or logic, is the art of formal and material reasoning. Formal logic asks, “How do we think correctly?” (i.e. “What is the form of valid thought?”) Material Logic asks “What do we think about?” (i.e. “What is the matter of thought?”). Rhetoric is the art of the fitting expression, though Aristotle reduces it to the art of persuasion. . . . In addition, Dorothy Sayers developed a theory and application of the trivium that suggests that each art corresponds to a general stage in a child’s growth. Much of the modern renewal of classical education feeds on this interpretation.

The arts of the Trivium–grammar, logic, and rhetoric–comprise the first three of the seven liberal arts.

I think that about covers the basics. If you have questions, please comment, and I can elaborate.

What, then, is Dorothy Sayers’ Trivium interpretation on which much of CCE feeds?

Many readers will be familiar with this, but for those who are new to CCE, I will try to succinctly summarize. Sayers insightfully recognized that a child develops roughly in the same way that the Trivium develops. First, the child learns facts–the “grammar” of any given subject. The young child loves to repeat and memorizes facts easily. She calls this the Poll-Parrot (or Grammar) stage. Second, the child learns thinking and reasoning skills. The middle-school aged child questions and argues. She calls this the Pert (or Logic) stage. Finally, a child learns to express. The adolescent craves individuality and an outlet for personal expression. She calls this the Poetic (or Rhetoric) stage.

All this Sayers wrote in a relatively short essay called “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which she delivered to an audience at Oxford University in 1947. Doug Wilson read this essay, resonated with its ideas, and decided to start a Christian school (Logos School, founded in 1981) based on what he calls the “Sayers insight.” His subsequent book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education (1991) was based on Sayers’ insight, as were his later books Repairing the Ruins (edited by Wilson, 1996) and The Case for Classical Christian Education (2003). Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, part of a popular Christian worldview series put out by Crossway in the late 80’s and early 90’s, sparked a resurgence in classical education based on a Christian worldview.

The Sayers interpretation was further popularized by mother-daughter duo Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer in their book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. What Wilson proposed for Christian schools, Wise and Bauer sought (successfully, I might add) to make accessible for homeschoolers (minus Wilson’s biblical worldview integration emphasis). They provide what amounts to a plan, with full resource lists and curriculum reviews, for K-12 classical education according to the Trivium stages. (One should note that while Wise and Bauer are Christians, they do not set out to include a specifically biblical worldview in their book or their other published materials. They feel that the worldview/religious perspective should be added by parents and local churches and should not be imposed by a curriculum. In discussing her position on this issue, Bauer writes, “The church of Christ, not textbook writers, should be responsible for providing the central Christian story that must inform all true education . . . a Christian education can only be provided by a Christian community — parents, in obedience to and in faithful relationship with their local church.” For what it’s worth, I agree that parents, in relationship with the local church, are responsible for the education of their children. However, I would argue that the books/textbooks one chooses for education are either for God or against God in their presuppositions. A book or textbook cannot be neutral because it is written by humans who choose what information to include and how that information is presented.)

Many others have written on the Trivium-as-Stages interpretation, but Wilson and Wise/Bauer represent this approach well and have heavily influenced the modern classical movement.

The Sayers interpretation, in its popularity, has become almost synonymous with classical education. I Googled “What is classical education” out of curiosity. The top two websites define classical education explicitly as Sayers’ Trivium-as-Stages interpretation (these websites were here and here, and both provide a more lengthy explanation of the Trivium stages used by this approach).

How is this Trivium interpretation both helpful and limiting?

Sayers did indeed have insight into child development, as far as her short interpretation goes (others carry it to the extreme). For an educator to keep in mind the way children naturally learn is both classical and Christian, and most acknowledge that this is the most helpful aspect of the “Sayers’ insight.”

Whether Sayers’ specific divisions are biblical, however, is up for much debate. Pastor Randy Booth argues for a scriptural correlation between Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric and Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom in his article “The Trivium in Biblical Perspective.” Doug Wilson argues similarly, citing Booth, in The Case for Classical Christian Education (133-135). Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn devote several sections of their book Teaching the Trivium to much the same argument (87-92, 479-497). However, Karen Glass, in her recent book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition devotes a section of her Afterward to refuting this correlation. She argues that the equation of these terms is eisegetical at best. She says, “There is no sound, Biblical reason for calling ‘knowledge, wisdom, and understanding’ stages of the trivium, and if we did, we could not place ‘knowledge’ first. If this were instruction about educational methods, it would indicate that we should start with wisdom.” I cannot take the time to do either of these arguments justice, so I would encourage you to read them for yourself.

This interpretation also allows for a very tidy pedagogy. In elementary school, the educator focuses heavily on memorization of facts through chanting, songs, recitations, etc., teaching the who, what, when, and where of a subject, or it’s “grammar.” Stories and observation are also emphasized at this age. In middle school/junior high, the educator turns to dialog and argument, teaching the why of each subject as well as formal logic. In high school, the educator teaches the child effective self-expression, focusing on the how, or the practicality, of each subject and how to synthesize information. These are not airtight categories, of course, but it makes for a handy plan. People who like lists and check-sheets (like me) or those who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of giving their child a quality classical education at home will often be drawn to the well-defined Trivium structure and curriculum parameters as set forth in books like The Well-Trained Mind. Others may be overwhelmed by these tightly defined stages.

We still do not know exactly how classical education was entirely done in the classical and Medieval ages–educational philosophers are still piecing that together, though we do have some examples from past writings. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that all classical and Medieval educators did education the same way. This can result in confusion and complication. Who’s way was “right”? The simple three-part structure of Trivium pedagogy presents an uncomplicated, unified method of doing classical education and keeps educators on the path to a better education than most of us received.

Though Sayers’ insight may be helpful in making one aware of how children learn and in simplifying classical education for the modern educator, this interpretation of the Trivium has several possible shortcomings. First, this use of the Trivium eliminates a major portion of the traditional liberal arts (the four arts of the Quadrivium–arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), not to mention philosophy and theology, as essential to the whole of classical Christian education. Now, to be fair, no one advocating for Trivium-based classical education is eliminating math or music from the curriculum completely (nor are the explicitly Christian advocates excluding philosophy or theology). However, Littlejohn and Evans (non-Trivium CCE advocates) argue in their book Wisdom and Eloquence that the all seven liberal arts were indeed childhood subjects of study and that educators must “separate the [liberal] arts from the question of cognitive development altogether” (39). They further argue that “the serious use of such constructs undermines the integrity of the liberal arts disciplines…We would instead assert that the tools of learning are the skills that are learned during one’s study of all the liberal arts and sciences” (39-40, emphasis added). Again, you can read both sides of this argument for yourself if you so choose. Doug Wilson defends his Trivium approach against the claims of Littlejohn and Evans in his review of their book. (And I will deal with the approach Littlejohn and Evans suggest in a later post.)

Second, and in this same vein, though not extremely important in my estimation, viewing the Trivium as stages is not how the Trivium was historically or classically viewed or used. This interpretation is brand new with Sayers (and Doug Wilson’s implementation of her thoughts) and therefore not “truly classical.” Wilson and others readily acknowledge this (Bauer calls this approach “neoclassical” to distinguish it), though I’ve come to find that many educators don’t seem aware of this. I was recently on the website of a classical Christian school which stated of Dorothy Sayers’ Trivium approach specifically that “this classical method of instruction had been successfully used for centuries…However, in the early twentieth century, the Trivium was discarded and replaced by the progressive method of education.” They get it partly right. Classical education (though, of course, it wasn’t called that) has been around for centuries and was discarded in favor of Dewey’s Progressivism in the 1800’s, however, the Trivium “method” of education as connected to child development is completely new with Sayers. (The Medieval Scholastics did use the Trivium, but not as Sayers proposes.) Littlejohn and Evans make the case that the Trivium-as-Stages approach lacks historical precedent. Andrew Campbell in his book The Latin-Centered Curriculum similarly argues that “the equation of the Sayers Trivium with classical education represents a fundamental redefinition of the term. We must therefore recognize the Sayers Trivium as a new method…In contrast, the traditional classical curriculum has spanned thousands of years” (39). In the review I mentioned above, Wilson again defends his Trivium approach against this argument (while admitting that it is a new and untried approach), essentially concluding, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I don’t think this is the end-all argument either way, but it is worth considering as we attempt to find pieces of the puzzle of the original classical Christian education.

Third, this interpretation has the possibility to both over-simplify and over-complicate classical Christian education. The over-simplification comes from the above arguments that the Trivium stages (particularly simple memorization of facts and not necessarily any discussion or “understanding” per se in the grammar stage) and the lack of emphasis on the Quadrivium reduce classical Christian education to less than it should be in a fully-orbed view. The over-complication comes from the principles of Schole (restful or leisurely learning) and Multum Non Multa (much not many)–two principles that have recently been introduced into the CCE movement (schole, multum non multa). Again, I will defer you to these articles/videos for further information.

Fourth, and I think most importantly, Sayers missed a step–an important step–in her Stages. Before a child learns the facts of something, learns to think about those facts, and learns to express those facts for himself, a child must learn to love. Their imaginations and affections, or you could say their perceptions, are formed before they necessarily have any intellectual knowledge of something or someone. I think this point is key to why the CCE renewal must not be content to stop with the Trivium approach. We have, in large part, recovered the lost tools of learning. We have not, in large part, recovered the lost tools of loving. Truth (and Goodness, by extension) have been the primary foci of the CCE arguments. I think you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that CCE isn’t concerned with biblical worldview. It was concerned with that right from the get-go. Doug Wilson’s first book on CCE was part of a Christian worldview series! But we have not focused enough on love, on Beauty. Only recently have authors involved in the CCE renewal, such as Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain (book), James K.A. Smith (book), and Stratford Caldecott (book), given attention to Beauty as regards education. We’ll be talking more about it on this blog.

What are different popular curricular approaches for Trivium-style classical Christian education?

  • Dorothy Sayers/Doug Wilson
  • The Well-Trained Mind
  • Classical Conversations
  • Tapestry of Grace
  • Teaching the Trivium
    (I will address Teaching the Trivium in the next post, because although Teaching the Trivium does, obviously, use the Trivium model of classical education, it differs significantly in content of the curriculum.)

Sara at Classically Homeschooling helpfully summarizes these five Trivium curricular approaches starting here, pointing out the distinctions between each of these, which is the first of five posts she has written on Trivium-style classical education. (She simply called Trivium-style classical education, “classical education,” when she wrote these posts, which may show you the prevalence that the Trivium-as-Stages approach has had in the classical resurgence.)

Several classical publishers lean heavily on the Trivium-as-Stages approach as well in the curricula that they produce, including Logos Press (an outgrowth of Doug Wilson’s Logos School), Veritas Press, and Memoria Press.

Is the Trivium-as-Stages the right approach to classical education for your family? There are certainly a lot of options using this approach, and, while it’s still not as widely known as “traditional” K-12 Christian education (Bob Jones, ABeka, etc.), it’s certainly the most well-known of the classical approaches.

I’ll be back with another post on the Trivium-as-Stages approach as explained by the Bluedorns, who advocate for this method but not its pagan classical curricular content, as well as the other three distinct approaches in later posts–the Seven Liberal Arts Classical Approach, the PGMAPT Classical Approach, and the Charlotte Mason Classical Approach. In the meantime, if something I’ve said has been confusing or if you want more information, feel free to comment with a question and I’ll try to answer or point you to a resource. Also, if you use this approach (or don’t) for a specific reason, I’d love to hear why.

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About Becky Aniol

Becky holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and music, a master's degree in Christian education, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian education. She taught classical upper school grammar, literature, and history and lower school composition and grammar for two years, elementary school music for one year, and Kindermusik classes for four years before the birth of her children. She now loves staying home with her four children, Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline and homeschooling them classically.