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The world is a complicated place; it’s hard to trace all the world’s problems back to their few root causes. But surely a lack of education is one of them–and, sad to say, a presence of miseducation. To be precise: A lack of good education is one of the root problems.
So what makes a good education? I was raised with the idea that Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic were fundamentals in education, and I don’t disagree with that now. The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers was a wonderful discovery in college. It turns out that there are some other fundamentals, the lost tools of the Trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric–or language, logic, and rhetoric. This is the old way of doing education. One of its surviving relics is the term “grammar school.” (Also, alongside the old and broken, yet newfangled, education system, a renewed, yet ancient and time-tested, education system has sprung up on this model–largely because of the influence of Sayers’ essay [examples here and here].)
The Trivium system relies largely on patterns. The patterns of Latin: sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt; o, as, at, amus, atis, ant; and others (so many others!). The patterns of Logic: All M are P; all S are M; therefore all S are P; and others.
Patterns matter. There are instincts we humans are naturally born with (or have been born with ever since the primal sin first corrupted human nature): Thinking we have a right to our own way no matter how it affects others, thinking we have a right to what we want now no matter the consequences later–as if our desires could impose themselves on reality and bend it to our arrogant, tiny human wills.
A nice remark by Thomas Sowell captures the uncivilized nature of these human instincts. And this is why patterns matter: Good patterns–patterns that help us remember facts, patterns of rational thought, patterns of ordered speech, patterns of virtuous life–are civilizing and edifying things.
The student who is trained in the Trivium is trained to think, from his youngest years, that some answers are simply correct and some simply are not. Sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt is right. Something like Sum, est, et, simy, ehee, dant is wrong.
The student is trained to think that some patterns of thought are correct. All M are P; All S are M; therefore all S are P is correct. You disagree with the fashionable views of younger and more powerful people; therefore shut up! is incorrect.
The student becomes accustomed to using the correct patterns of thought. And, in the rhetoric stage of his education, he learns to apply the correct patterns in public speech, in public debate, or in writing.
And these are good things: edifying, educating, and civilizing things. These are things it would be good to have more of in ourselves, our families, our communities, our country.
I’m not saying that we should go back to being medievals (though that would be much better than proceeding onward into full-blown postmodern moral relativism), or that we shouldn’t teach science, or that we shouldn’t teach students to think for themselves (quite the contrary!) or to employ “critical thinking” (which, if it’s a good thing, must surely be about 90% the same as logical thinking anyway).
I am saying that I think a healthy infusion of Trivium education would help improve education in America.
How to do it I can hardly guess, and maybe it’s better that way. (I can’t exactly plan an educational system for an entire country.) But here are a few ideas that a few of us might be able to employ, making things a little better in little ways, building from the ground up. If I’m right about the value of the Trivium, then some of you Ricocheters can try these and add your own ideas.
- We could learn to see the benefit of learning a dead language precisely because you won’t ever speak it; because you are learning it instead in order to see how language works and in order to learn some good patterns.
- We could try teaching Latin to our own kids at home (1 or 2 hours a week, starting with some basic patterns).
- People who make decisions about what courses are counted towards a degree might opt to include an optional, or a required, logic component.