This year my husband, Jason Strauss, has been a part of the CiRCE Apprenticeship where he has been practicing teaching and writing with a group of like minded thinkers. After returning from his winter retreat, his mind was whirling with thoughts on the connections between the Trivium, Mimesis, and Hermeneutics. If you've never heard those words before, you're not alone! He's sharing his contemplations with us in a series of three posts unpacking the beauty connecting these three concepts. Make sure you come back each day to continue to find out how the trivium, mimesis, and hermeneutics are connected!
Classical education is such a rich subject - a fascinating mine to explore. As one goes deeper, discoveries only get more thrilling. How did people learn back then? We know people in the past were far from unintelligent (even the Myans continue to blow our minds). Why then are we so intimidated by their methods? Modern ideas are just experiments, and the structure and basis for our thought are much different than the past. As ideas from the distant past are brought to light, we begin to see really how stable they are, at least compared to the ideas in the post-modern, relativistic pluralism of our culture. There is a lot of truth to what has been said in the past regarding education, and about methods that aim to keep the nature of a human in the forefront. To be sure, the classic thinkers of Greece did not have the same understanding of man as is presented in God's infallible Word, though they were idealists. As men of thought who valued virtue and devalued vice for the sake of their country, they came upon observations that proved to be time-tested in the end. Due in large part to their observations, they had a deep understanding of how a human went from not knowing to knowing.
The Trivium is one expression of that understanding. In Latin, it means "three roads" or "ways" (the term was coined later during the middle ages). It is connected to another expression called the Quadrivium ("four ways"). Together, a student would be taken through what has now become known as the seven liberal arts. The concepts or subjects in the Trivium are the same as Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates' essential subjects for a quality education. The Quadrivium, focused primarily on number (arithmetic, geography, music, and astronomy), prepared a learner for higher forms of study such as philosophy and theology.
Theology then was based on the foundation of the Trivium. The way they studied God was based on the way they studied other subjects. Big ideas formed along the way up informed and solidified their thoughts about God. The whole point of an education for them (whether in classic Greek times or in the Middle Ages), was wisdom and virtue. They studied to be better people. It was why they cared so much about what they learned and especially how they learned it. They needed to help learners grasp big ideas. How would they do that? They wanted their learners to own those ideas and learn to let them settle in their hearts. They wanted those ideas to infect other areas of their thinking and affect their decisions. These ideas would become norms - the building blocks of virtuous and wise behavior which would then benefit their society.
To teach classically is to teach with the soul in mind. This foundational thought is found in the Trivium. It is expressed in a method which calls student to mimic his teacher (Mimesis), and the soul is clearly in mind as one studies the Bible (Hermeneutics). What kind of person will you be in the end?
As we teach little souls, we remember that each one is growing in maturity - both physically and spiritually, which is why Dorothy Sayers observed that the Trivium can be understood as developmental stages as well. As a result of physical changes and maturity, we have observed that certain ages tend to be in different developmental stages. But this is a notion built on the original concept. The terms Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric can be understood in two basic ways. Sayers' appropriate understanding is based on the original. One must be able to identify something before he can think on it and analyze it. Likewise, he must process the idea before he can then instruct and persuade with wisdom.
Guitar & the Trivium
For instance, if someone wanted to learn to play guitar, they need to know how to speak of it. They should know terms that identify what it is (Grammar) before they can work through the mechanics of how to play it. They would need to have input on good technique and improper technique, on what shapes make what chords, etc. Without this kind of Dialectic-like process they would not be able to play a song for someone (Rhetoric).
In anything we learn, we must go through a process of first learning the Grammer of it, then process it Dialectically, and may only then be Rhetorical in whatever it is we set out to learn.
As for the stages, Sayers logic is laid out something like this:
Developmentally, younger children (otherwise known as sponges) tend to soak in information very quickly. They learn the grammar - the terminology, the phrasing, the acts and facts of people, places, and of various subjects and processes.
As these sponges continue to age, their brains continue to develop into a stage where questions become more the norm. So we utilize this general tendency (not the rule), to teach them to process this information. Dialectic conversations are set up to help them think corporately and discover truths together. Big ideas connect with other ideas and they strike gold.
This gold (hopefully) creates an increased enthusiasm as they continue to develop into rhetoricians. Thoughtful analysis (both individual and group) leads to the practice of artful presentation. Students in this stage are naturally sharing what they know and learn here to express powerfully and beautifully.
Okay, so that’s the Trivium in a nutshell, but what about those other strange words in your title? Right.