Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Classical Trivium

By Artur Suski, S.J.


What is the Classical Trivium? The Classical Trivium was the title of Marshall McLuhan’s Doctoral dissertation; but in reality, the name is much older than that. It was the first stage of a classical education that any Greek and Roman would have received growing up. It was the foundation of a student’s education, the backbone to the further study of philosophy and other more advanced subjects such as law. Three subjects made up the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students only progressed to the next stage when they have successfully mastered the previous one.

Professor Sr. Miriam Joseph, a Classics scholar, summarized the trivium in the following manner: “Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.” It is interesting to note that such fundamental topics that comprised the trivium are rarely found in the educational system today in Canada. One would be lucky to take a philosophy course in Grade 12 in which the topic of what logic is merely skimmed over, if at all. Grammar has been taken out of the curriculum and is no longer formally taught at schools to the dismay of many. In addition, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who knows what rhetoric is these days. In this sense, our contemporary education here has moved backwards rather than forwards, and continues to do so.

Given the lack of the trivium in our educational system today, we shall have members of society with poor grammar, who cannot adequately express their thoughts. With poor logic, one cannot think straight; with poor rhetoric, one cannot communicate one's thoughts. This undoubtedly has an impact on all aspects of societal life. The intrinsic concept of the trivium has been around for over two thousand years. It has been shown to be extremely effective in producing well-educated citizens. Why have we abandoned such a necessary part of a person’s education?

The problem stems from the fact that much discipline is needed to teach these subjects, and much more is needed from the student’s part to master them. A few years ago, I have had the privilege to volunteer at a Catholic high school for a full day per week for two semesters. At that time, I realized that the students were quite undisciplined and very unwilling to learn anything. It is difficult enough to get them engaged into exciting topics, let alone grammar and logic! This may be part of the challenge for teachers, one that needs to be addressed if we want to win back our students.

When Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was meeting with the Canadian Jesuits in formation last year, he said something to this effect: “You must take your own formation into your own hands. If something is missing in your formation, actively try to seek it out on your own time.” I would say that his words ring true to non-Jesuits as well: to those that are involved in education, look into the matter of the trivium. Learn these things so that you might teach your students and your own children! What followed the trivium in classical education was the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). These also are very important subjects that need to be taught, as they form the person in important ways. In the end, it boils down to the formation of the whole person so that the true, the good, and the beautiful might be discerned, understood, and communicated.


  1. and don't forget to tell people that there ARE Classical Academies like Maryvale in Ottawa etc!

    People need to support these schools; parents need to send their kids there!

  2. And schools like Wayside Academy in Peterborough, Ontario, which are intentionally Catholic and classical-curriculum based:

    Families move to the Ptbo area so they can attend schools like this.