The Trivial Trivium… or The Trivium at The Crossroads

For a while now I have been amused at the contrast between the two words “trivium” and “trivial.” Now I am an ardent advocate of the renewal of “Trivium-Based Education” and consider such a renewal greatly needed and far from trivial. So in what sense could the trivium be trivial? How could one of these words be so serious and the other so…well, trivial?

Our word “trivium” is taken directly from the Latin word trivium which means the place “where three roads meet.” The word trivium is made from two other Latin words: tres (three) and via (road, way). The word trivium was employed by some medieval educators to describe the education rooted in the study of the three verbal arts of grammar, logic in rhetoric. The trivium described the “three fold way” consisting of the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. So the trivium is the path to mastering language and cultivating one’s humanity. That’s pretty serious. Our word “trivial” (and “trivia”) derives from a related Latin word–the adjective trivialis, which means “of the crossroads.” In Roman towns, crossroads where very busy streets where a lot of people gathered, making what was there, or what happened there, common. So gradually, what was “trivial” became that which was common, familiar and well-known.

In contemporary education, we surely cannot say that the trivium is common, familiar and well-known. Certainly trivum-based education is not on every street corner, not in this sense at the crossroads. But could the trivium be at the crossroads in another sense? For a crossroads also represents a decision that must be made. One must make one turn or another, take one path or another. As classical schools continue to grow and multiply, other schools will be presented with a choice: Should we adopt a classical curriculum and pedagogy? Many Christian schools are observing the growth of classical schools and asking themselves, if the classical approach would be a road worth taking. Several have said yes, a trend I am certainly watching carefully.

Classical schools themselves often find themselves at their own crossroads: Do we start a high school? Do we dilute the classical curriculum in order to attract more students? Do we help start another classical school in a city down the road?

Maybe you are at a crossroads. Will you educate your own children classically? Will you become an educator at a classical school or co-op? Will you give your talent and time to a classical school board? Start a new classical school? Let me know, I have been down that road before.

Thomas More’s Utopian Education

Thomas More’s Utopia (first published in 1516) has been calling out to me from my bookshelf for a few years now, and I finally heeded the call, took it off the shelf and read it. We keep hearing of Utopian visions of culture and society, and I have been itching to go to the sources the word and the concept. More’s book was also a nice complement to the Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. So I read it last week.

More begins by comparing his Utopia (through his fictional character Raphael) with that of Plato’s (from The Republic). Raphael, who has visited Utopia, remarks that the Plato’s ideal was never realized, whereas the Utopians actually implemented their ideal, and with great success. Utopia is an island nation (convenient for implementing ideas without interference and influence) somewhere in the “New World” of the time. There is much to say in summary of More’s ideal society, but let me offer this abbreviation: in Utopia property is held in common, everyone must work or not eat (no one is idle), there is no money nor need for money (gold is common and relatively despised–slave are shackled in gold chains), virtually everyone works on farms. More’s book has been the inspiration for a range of movements from Christian Anabaptism to secular communism.

He does have some Utopian insights for education as well. Not everyone can become a scholar or intellectual. He writes, “Admittedly, no one’s allowed to become a full-time student, except for the very few in town who appear as children to possess unusual gifts, outstanding intelligence, and a special appetite or academic research. But every child receives a primary education, and most men and women go educating themselves all their lives during those free periods I told you about.” (Book Two)

We find in More, another example of a highly-educated elite, and a generally-educated working class. He also finds friendly company with some progressive educational theorists who advocated mental testing in order to separate students into appropriate curriculum determined by student aptitude with a goal of serving “social efficiency.” This clashes with the thinking of Mortimer Adler, who argued that the best education for some, was the best education for all. Adler wanted to democratize classical education, More was content with restricting it to the best and brightest–as did Plato in The Republic.

So should we stand with More or Adler? Or must we choose between them?

Breaking News–

You heard it here first…On Monday Classical Academic Press will officially launch a substantial new website called Headventureland where students can creatively practice their Latin, Spanish, Greek and other subjects by means of vocabulary games (FlashDash), videos and bilingual readers. This site has been over six months in the making and is growing week by week. I encourage you to check out the site and and pass it on to others you think would enjoy it. And BTW the site is completely free.