In July, is bringing you new resources on homeschooling and parenting within the tradition of liberty. Free to members all month is Teri Moore’s new book, The Secular Homeschooler. A new addition to our growing collection of Liberty Guides is Free Your Children: A Guide for Liberty-Loving Parents by Justin Arman. Look for both Teri and Justin at U this month. And on July 20, Laurette Lynn is doing an event on the topic “Don’t Do Drugs, Stay Out of School”!

In keeping with this month’s theme, I have written a Toastmasters speech on the Trivium and classical education, which I share here:


When I was in the Boy Scouts, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the 10 rights and the 10 duties of an American citizen. I couldn’t get any other badges until I first got the one for citizenship, and to get it I needed to recite a citizen’s rights and duties according to the Boy Scout Manual.

At 12 years old, I couldn’t memorize two short lists.

So my father spent an afternoon with me during one of his visitation weekends and taught me how to memorize lists. And I got the badge.

When my 7th-grade English class assigned our first Shakespeare play, Romeo & Juliet, my father — who had taught Shakespeare at Colby College — wanted to make sure he and I read the play together before school ruined it for me. And so, one weekend, he taught me how to read a play, and especially how not to read a Shakespeare play. I had dreaded it, but it turned out to be a lot of fun, and it’s still one of my fondest memories.

What became clear to me over time was that school was trying to teach me a bunch of subjects, a lot of facts, and to get me to read certain books by a certain age. But only my father was teaching me how to learn things. And the older I got, the clearer it was that my real education was in the hows and not the whats. I still consider myself a student, because I still study. In this sense, most of my education has been outside of school, even though I followed a fairly traditional school path until I graduated from college. The hows that I learned outside school have served me far better than the whats I learned within.

So when we decided to homeschool our son, Benjamin, I knew that I wanted an approach that emphasized the tools of learning.

DorothySayersAs it turns out, that emphasis was the basis of early education in Medieval Europe, which I learned from a speech called "The Lost Tools of Learning," given at Oxford in 1947.

How many of you have heard of the mystery writer Dorothy Sayers?

She was a very famous detective writer, and also an Oxford medievalist. I’d like to share with you the medieval approach to teaching a person how to learn, according to Dorothy Sayers. And then I’ll close with some comments on what was lost with these lost tools.

The method is called the Trivium, which is Latin for “the three roads,” but the way the Trivium is taught, these roads don’t run side by side. It might be more appropriate to think of the Trivium as the earliest three stages of learning, and part of Sayers’s emphasis is that the stages must occur in a specific sequence:

1. Grammar

2. Dialectic

3. Rhetoric

Each name is now misleading for us. Instead of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, you can think of the stages as

1. Memorization

2. Logic

3. Expression

Dorothy Sayers described the three stages of a young student’s development with different words that may or may not be helpful to us: Parrot, Pert, and Poet.

The Grammar stage is about memorizing facts and rules and being able to speak them back to the teacher. Thus the idea of the Parrot. We still call this early stage "grammar school," and if you’ve ever wondered why, well now you know. (In fact, in the method that Nathalie and I follow with Benjamin, these stages map roughly to grammar school, middle school, and high school, respectively.)

Dialectic is an old-fashioned way of referring to formal logic and the rules of reasoning, if X then Y. I doubt too many of us have used the word “Pert” as a noun, but it comes from impertinent, and it’s how Sayers refers to the age where children love to catch grownups contradicting themselves or otherwise being illogical. If you know any middle schoolers, you’ll recognize this description. Unfortunately, the association between middle school and the study of formal logic has been completely lost. I didn’t study formal logic until college, and it certainly wasn’t a required course, even then. There’s an irony here, but I’ll come back to it later.

Rhetoric is what we’re working on here at Toastmasters, the art and science of persuasive communication. You can see why Sayers chose the word Poet to refer to this stage of the student’s development. And much as I love Toastmasters, I wish that it were less necessary: I wish that we had all been better grounded in the tools of debate and public speaking in high school. Nathalie and I are already discussing how to create a Toastmasters-like group for local homeschoolers as Benjamin leaves the age of the Parrot and enters the age of the Pert. I’m hoping we have something going by the time he reaches Poet.

The idea for all three stages of the Trivium, at least according to Dorothy Sayers, is that the subjects pursued, the books read, the facts acquired don’t matter nearly as much as the emphasis of the approach taken at each stage. Because kids brains go through these distinct stages. They will want to focus on facts, reasoning, and expression at the fact-, reasoning-, and expression-stages of their development. If we teach them how best to do those things at the stages at which they are most inclined to do them, then we have given them the tools for learning anything they want to pursue later on.

Arman-FreeYourChildren-BookizedCover-600w-370x478I mentioned an irony earlier, about the loss of formal logic in formal education. The irony is that so-called progressive education, that is — the 20th century’s deliberate undoing of whatever was left of this classical approach to education — criticized memorization as boring and irrelevant, and advocated "critical-thinking" skills instead. Out went the facts and in came endless discussion. There were 3 problems with this move:

(1) Children at the Grammar stage of learning are great at memorizing and lousy at critical thinking. That’s not just because they lack practice. It’s not something the teacher can fix. It’s just a stage of brain development. My son Benjamin is already transitioning from Grammar to Logic in his brain development, but when he was a little younger, still clearly in the Grammar stage, I would try to walk him through a logical argument, but he’d end up memorizing it. He couldn’t apply the logic to a new situation. If you’ve ever been around a child transitioning from Parrot to Pert, it’s really obvious. Suddenly they’re seeing logical fallacies in every casual utterance. Until that starts happening, critical thinking is simply impossible.

(2) As fewer and fewer adults have been educated in the tools of proper reasoning, schoolteachers themselves are less and less capable of critical thinking. So what do they do with these endless discussions with 6-year-olds? That’s the next problem.

(3) What is supposedly about teaching young children critical thinking really turns out to be about indoctrination, whether intentional or not. Remember what I said about Benjamin memorizing a logical argument instead of abstracting its principles? If a grownup is always talking to young kids about critical thinking, what’s really happening is that the kids are remembering the examples instead of the formal principles behind the examples. In other words, they absorb the values of the person leading the discussion, because, ironically, they are not yet ready to assess those values critically.

The next problem, an even bigger irony, is that after all this misplaced emphasis on critical thinking for little kids, the formal tools of critical thinking — the rules of logic and a familiarity with the common fallacies, or logical errors — doesn’t get taught in middle school! This is suddenly the stage at which students are supposed to learn "subjects" — meaning that they’re supposed to remember facts.

Between the early emphasis on discussion over facts and the later emphasis on facts over formal logic, the schools produce teenagers who are yearning for the Poet stage — the time of personal identity and its unique expression — but they don’t have any of the training in actual critical thinking that allows poetry to have any discipline or effectiveness.

It is often emphasized that Picasso studied the disciplined painting techniques of the masters before he explored Cubism and other new directions in artistic expression. Our schools are turning out kids who want to be Picasso without first knowing how to represent anything accurately on canvas.

Moore-SecularHomeschooler-Cover1-370x493I expect Benjamin to be well grounded in the rigors of realism by the time he is tempted to explore whatever his version of Cubism turns out to be. He will have facts and logic under his belt by the time he’s inclined to pursue poetry — or whatever form of more abstract expression attracts his passion.

But even if Dorothy Sayers was wrong, even if it turns out that the Trivium is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce an educated young adult, I’m convinced that there’s an essential benefit to this classical approach to early education, which is this: From the outset, we’ve talked to Benjamin about learning how to learn. To emphasize the tools of learning rather than any particular thing you may want a child to learn — and like all parents, we have plenty of those, too — is itself, I think, to give a child the most important tool of lifelong learning.

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