Those who incorporate the reading of ancient classical authors, and declare this to be of the very essence of any education which could be styled as Classical, are actually referring to what might better be called a Classical Humanist Education. We do not mean to call them a bad name when we use the term humanist. A humanist in the classical sense is one who studies what are called the “humanities,” primarily classical Greek and Roman literature.
We pursue a narrower definition of “Classical Education.” We are more interested in teaching by the same educational principles and toward the same educational goals as the ancients than in teaching the same literature as the ancients. We do not necessarily pursue the Classical materials – Homer and Plato, or Caesar and Cicero. Instead, we necessarily pursue the Classical Model of Child Development and the Classical Method for Teaching Subjects. We call this the Applied Trivium.
Furthermore, we are Christians, so our focus is yet narrower. Everything non-Christian is also anti-Christian because it fails to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. There is no neutral ground. “He that is not with me is against me. . . .” (Matthew 12:30) We sift everything – including Classical authors – through the critical screen of the Scriptures. As John Wycliffe wrote, “There is no subtlety, in grammar, neither in logic, nor in any other science that can be named, but that it is found in a more excellent degree in the Scriptures.” Our focus in all cultures is upon what is redeemable in Christ. We choose to limit our meaning of classical to include only what is of good form and lasting value (Classical) and which conforms to a Biblical standard within a Biblical worldview (Christian).
Dorothy Sayers led the way in attempting to coin a terminology for the stages of learning. She suggested Poll-Parrot, Pert, and Poetic. Her terminology has never caught on. The three formal classical subjects of the Trivium are Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Because Dorothy Sayers analogically applied these terms to the levels of learning development and subject development, those who have followed her application have, probably by default, simply applied these names to the levels of development. We suggest that the Biblical triad of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom would serve better to describe the three levels of development. However, because others who have written on these subjects use the classical terms, we work with both terminologies.
Our View of the Trivium in a Capsule
Each child goes through three stages of development, and each subject has three levels of development. These three stages or levels correspond to the Formal Trivium in the Classical sense – Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, and to the Biblical Trivium of Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom. We will describe the three stages from the point of view of the individual child’s development, but keep in mind that this also applies to the development of each individual subject which you teach, and the development of each subject is not necessarily age-bound.
Here is the picture: Man has three mental capacities:
- One for gathering up information – Knowledge.
- A second for arranging the information in a logical order – Understanding.
- A third for putting this information and this ordering into practical use – Wisdom.
The Early Knowledge or Grammar Stage
These three capacities are mutually dependent upon each other, but there is nevertheless a logical and developmental order between them. All three capacities are developing in the child from before birth. The child is always learning facts, relating the facts to each other, and using these facts and relations in practical ways.
The Knowledge or Grammar Stage
During the child’s early years, while all three capacities are growing, the capacity for Knowledge experiences the greatest growth. At about age nine or ten, the developmental parts have reached such a state of maturity that the light bulb goes on and the capacity for Knowledge makes a growth spurt – a quantum leap – into an intensive period when capacity and ability for formal academic study of Knowledge-related materials is most profitable.
When the child is at this level, we teach him the skill of comprehension – to accurately receive information – to gather the facts. Knowledge is imparted through telling, and demonstrating. It comes through the senses. We develop a vocabulary of facts and rules. At this level, we do not need to separate subjects. We can combine 1) language with literature and fine arts 2) mathematics with natural sciences 3) history with geography and social studies. Our goal is to develop competence in the tools of inquiry: reading, listening, writing, observing, measuring.
The Understanding or Logic Stage
The intensive Knowledge period lasts about three years, and when it is over, Knowledge of course continues to grow and develop, but the capacity for Understanding – which has been developing all along – emerges as the frontrunner in this race. With a large foundation of Knowledge laid, and the developmental parts of Understanding reaching a level of maturity, another light bulb goes on, and the capacity for Understanding makes a growth spurt – a quantum leap – into an intensive period when a capacity and ability for formal academic study of Understanding-related materials is most profitable.
When the child is at this level, we teach him the skill of reasoning – to critically question, analyze, evaluate, and discern causes, motives, means, purposes, goals, and effects – to investigate the theory. Understanding is imparted through coaching, correcting, drilling. We develop a vocabulary of relationships, order, and abstractions. Our teaching will become more sequential and systematic, separating the different branches of learning. Our goal is to develop competence in the tools of investigation: analyzing, comparing, contrasting.
The Wisdom or Rhetoric Stage
The intensive Understanding period lasts about three years, and when it is over, Understanding of course continues to grow and develop, but the capacity for Wisdom – which has been developing all along – emerges as the frontrunner in this race. When a large foundation of Knowledge and Understanding have been laid, and the developmental parts of Wisdom reach a level of maturity, then a third light bulb goes on, and the capacity for Wisdom makes a growth spurt – a quantum leap – into an intensive period when a capacity and ability for formal academic study of Wisdom-related materials is most profitable.
When the child is at this level, we teach him the skills of prudent judgement and effective expression – through communication and practical application. Wisdom is imparted through encouraging individual initiative and innovation, asking questions, and leading discussions. We develop a vocabulary of philosophical ideas and values. We begin to recombine the knowledge and skills from separate disciplines. We seek the application of principles, values and goals.
The intensive Wisdom period lasts about three years, and when it is over, Wisdom of course continues to grow and develop, but all three capacities: Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom – which have been developing all along, emerge as a fully developed team of tools.
The Final Finishing Stage
During the next couple of years, the moral capacity of conscience – which has been developing all along, is brought to full measure, so that the capacity for accountability should be fully developed by the completion of the full Biblical age of twenty years. Of course, all of the capacities will continue to grow, but the basic tools which will be used throughout life should all be developed by this time.
In summary, the capacities for Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom are not neat little compartments with sealed doors between them. Rather, they all develop at the same time from the very beginning, yet they each pass through successive periods of intensive development, until they finally catch up with each other and work harmoniously together.
To summarize it all in one sentence: we first instruct the child in Knowledge or Grammar; then we guide the child in Understanding or Logic; and finally we challenge the child in Wisdom or Rhetoric.
Why Do We Follow a Classical Model and Method?
The best reason for choosing the classical way of schooling is simply because this is the Biblical model written into reality. So what if the pagans borrowed it? We simply take it back and clean it up and put it to our own use. The classical way has been successful for millennia because it conforms to the created nature of things. It works well because it matches reality. If we ever learned anything, we learned it by the trivium method – whether we knew it or not. But it’s always better to know what we’re doing, and that’s what we try to help homeschoolers to do.
Copyright 2000 Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn. Used by permission.
The Bluedorns were pioneers in the homeschooling movement and have homeschooled all five of their children. They are popular speakers at homeschool conventions and are the authors of the book Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in the Classical Style. You can learn more about them and classical homeschooling at http://www.triviumpursuit.com.