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    Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    Trivium: The Threefold Curriculum of the Language Arts

    August 10, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    Now that Kevin Clark, one of the co-authors of The Liberal Arts Tradition, has explained to us what the liberal arts are for (or, at least, part of what they are for), let’s talk about what they are.

    In which grammar is bigger, dialectic is much more, and rhetoric is more fully human than we ever expected.

    If I was going to describe the Trivium in a single sentence based upon my reading in The Liberal Arts Tradition, I would say that grammar is learning to read with understanding, dialectic is learning to reason well, and rhetoric is learning to communicate truth effectively and persuasively.

    Out of these three, I think that only rhetoric is generally known for what it is, and even then there is a sense in which we tend to think of rhetoric in terms of manipulation and technique rather than something that might be used by a respectable Christian.

    Grammar: Reading with Understanding

    Grammar is big. It includes basic phonics and letter formation, but it isn’t mastered — or maybe it is better to say that we aren’t mastered by it — until we can read great books in the original languages.

    Yep. That’s right. According to Clark and Jain, grammar (as well as rhetoric) would necessarily include the study of the classical languages. Personally, I think the argument they make in their book is excellent. I’m not going to go deeply into it, though, because Mystie has already done the legwork for us on this subject. She not only explains the argument Clark and Jain make, but she also compares it to Karen Glass’ book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. I highly recommend Mystie’s post!

    What I want to focus on is how big grammar is, because I think this is where we tend to get it wrong — thinking of grammar as basic rules or something rudimentary. Clark and Jain write:

    Consider, for example, what a reader should know in order properly to interpret the Aeneid, and one will intuitively grasp the nature of grammar in its classical sense.

    Dialectic: Reasoning Well

    We moderns have reduced dialectic to logic, but those two things are not the same, though they are related. Like grammar, our modern view is too small — logic is too small. Dialectic is bigger — and it’s more human.

    Dialectic involves developing good reason, and this isn’t about syllogisms. At its core, it is a language art, not a mathematical one. In dialectic, we learn to reason in relationship with others through good dialog. Dialectic, Clark and Jain remind us, isn’t so much about having all the right answers:

    [T]he key to success in reasoning is the ability to ask the right questions.

    Later, they write:

    The hope is that the student thus learned in the art of dialectic will know which questions are worth asking, and which are worth answering.

    Rhetoric: Communicating Truth Effectively and Persuasively

    It is Cicero, we learn, who ultimately defined the purpose of rhetoric as

    movere, docere, delectare — ‘to move, to instruct, and to delight.’

    What I thought was most interesting is that rhetoric necessitates a good man — imagine such a weapon wielded only by evil politicians and marketing companies with something to sell.


    Another interesting component of rhetoric is that, in order to persuade, we acknowledge human nature as a whole. This is why Clark and Jain tell us:

    It is directed toward speaking the truth, but governed by an understanding that appealing to the whole person — mind, will, affections — is legitimate.

    What Does Charlotte Mason Say About the Liberal Arts — and Specifically the Trivium?

    In her volumes, Charlotte Mason only uses the proper term “Liberal Arts” in regard to her beloved fresco, which we discussed here. Her focus in those instances is always upon God as the fountain of all knowledge and truth, rather than on the specifics of the arts.

    So we must search elsewhere to find out what she thinks about these subjects.

    Miss Mason refers to grammar mostly in the modern sense — of instruction in the rules surrounding the use of words in both English and Latin. The question, though, is not really how she uses the word “grammar” but whether or not she embraces the classical understanding of it — whether she was moving her students in the direction of being educated in the classical sense.

    I would say that she does, though it is not so formal as we might think because she taught children and, as such, she was very entrenched in the poetic approach. But, poetic or no, if the goal of grammar is ultimately to read with understanding, those who have used her methods know that she moves students (and their teachers!) in this direction very effectively.

    Let’s take narration as an example. Starting with a small six-year-old, we begin paragraph by paragraph (or sometimes even less than that) — the child learns to listen well and then to tell back, in his own words, what he has heard and understood. As this practice continues throughout the years, the Charlotte Mason student comes to have remarkable skills of apprehension, and their trained attentions can, upon a single reading, take in, assimilate, and reproduce the major points of a text.

    Likewise, the Charlotte Mason syllabus, with its generosity and breadth, offers to its students the background knowledge required for the level of reading comprehension we are talking about here — the ability to understand what other things authors are alluding to.

    Narration is truly unique because as children grow, it naturally starts students on the paths of dialectic as well as rhetoric. In the retelling and essay writing of the upper grades, early rhetoric begins, while the art of asking questions is also considered one of the uses of books.

    In addition to this, we cannot forget Miss Mason’s extensive writing on the Way of Reason. Nor ought we overlook that her Latin instruction was such that she expected a 12-year-old to “read fables and easy tales, and, say, one or two books of ‘Caesar.'”

    In all, I think it is clear that Charlotte Mason was setting the stage for the Trivium. Because she believed that childhood education should be mostly musical and gymnastic, we aren’t going to see a lot of formal study, but that she was aiming for a truly liberal education is, I think, undeniable.

    I love how nicely all of this dovetails, don’t you?

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  • Reply Dawn Duran August 17, 2015 at 2:44 am

    Yes, it does all dovetail beautifully. I’m re-reading Consider This slowly, too, and those readings are correlating nicely to The Liberal Arts Tradition as well.

    One notion in particular, which Karen Glass expounds upon in her work, is to view the Trivium as three roads that all lead to the same place in the end. We don’t follow them consecutively; rather, we follow them simultaneously and each road enriches the other when approached in that fashion. Of course, she expresses the concept far more eloquently than I can, and we have been blessed to have her participation in our discussion of her book on the AO Forum.

    PS – I still don’t have an option to receive responses emailed to me, FYI, so it’s unlikely I’ll remember to come back and visit any follow up comments.

  • Reply Elizabeth August 10, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Yes, I am far less knowledgeable than you! BUT, i love seeing ;practically how this is all so interwoven,,,,,,,,, LOVE IT! Excellent post Ü

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