There’s a great deal of debate about what constitutes a good education. Our current education system seems to operate on the belief that how children are educated needs near constant tinkering and updating. Meanwhile, the number of individuals choosing education as a profession is on a steady decline, with a 19 percent drop in the number of education bachelor’s degrees since 2000–01. Reasons for this drop include burnout, wages, and disputes around curriculum.
Some argue that teachers are simply undervalued, but why is this when, as a nation, we clearly value education as a virtue. Perhaps it’s because our current educational system has little to nothing to do with being educated at all.
Formal education has been around since the ancient Greeks and included seven branches under the headings of the trivium and quadrivium. The seven branches were grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Together, the study of these disciplines laid the foundation for learning throughout life. The trivium, in particular, is crucial in gaining the wisdom needed to navigate life in a complex society.
The trivium refers specifically to the three arts of learning language. The word trivium is Latin for “where three roads meet” and comprises the tools of learning essential to mastering the use of language. The three roads refer to the three stages of learning language, which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Interestingly, two of these stages are mostly absent from public schools today.
The grammar stage encompasses early learning, starting around age 6 or 7 through age 9 or 10. During this phase, a child is like a little sponge, capable of absorbing a great deal of information and facts. By focusing on memorization, narration, learning to read, learning parts of speech, and broadening their vocabulary, children gain a solid foundation for the use of language.
It is crucial to a child in this stage that their natural curiosity be nurtured. One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the TV, put away the screens, and read aloud to your child. This helps young children develop their ear for the spoken language. Poetry memorization, training in phonics, reading, and identifying parts of speech all build confidence and help gain mastery of language. First Language Lessons for the Well Trained Mind is an at-home curriculum that utilizes all of the above mentioned techniques to help kids build a solid foundation in the grammar stage. All of this learning prepares children for the next stage: logic.
For the most part, the teaching of logic is absent from public schools; however, learning logic is essential to a child’s ability to think. At the logic stage, a child’s capacity for understanding increases along with the cognitive ability to think abstractly.
With this newfound reasoning capacity, kids can learn the skills involved in analyzing and questioning. Children at this stage, roughly ages 10 to 12, are ready for exposure to simple syllogisms, logical fallacies, and informal logic such as compare and contrast, classifications, and diagrams. Reading aloud and discussing facts, making arguments, and questioning how and why are common in this stage.
One of the best ways to practice logic is through dinner table discussions. Books such as The Thinking Toolbox and The Art of Argument are also fun ways to introduce informal logic. With logic under their belts, children are primed for the final area of the trivium: rhetoric.
Rhetoric is characterized by the mastery of writing. In this stage, kids—now teenagers—learn to communicate thoughts and arguments through written expression. Writing essays; reading; discussing philosophy, history, poetry, and classic literature; studying formal logic; and participating in deep discussions are all part of learning and practicing rhetoric.
As a fun way to demonstrate and practice this stage of learning, many students enjoy joining speech and debate clubs. Plus, there are many excellent writing curricula for this stage, including Rhetoric: A Text for Middle and High School Students and the Writing & Rhetoric Series , which introduces writing at an earlier stage if your child is ready.
Together, the teaching of grammar, logic, and rhetoric lay the foundation for the mastery of language, which is an essential part of gaining wisdom and communicating this knowledge in the world. If we truly value education as virtue and if we desire for our children to be prepared to go into the world as thinking adults, able to dissect the rhetoric of politicians, write great literature and poetry, and have a sense of competence in the world, we must return to the basics of a great education. We must return to teaching the trivium.
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