Trivium Pursuit

Interview with Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn

This article first appeared several years ago in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

TOS: For those of our readers who don't know you very well, you have been homeschooling for several years. In fact, you had some unique experiences during your early years of homeschooling. What was life like for homeschoolers in Iowa in the 1970s?

In a word: Jail! The states of Iowa and North Dakota were the last two hold-outs on making homeschooling legal.

In the late 70's, when we were preparing to homeschool, the books, legal advice, and support were plenty scarce. We ran up large phone bills calling everywhere in our attempt to find like-minded families. Two big helps at that time were Christian Liberty Academy and the books by Raymond and Dorothy Moore.

In September of 1980, we “officially” began homeschooling our oldest son, Nathaniel, who was then three months short of age five. We would read about the Sessions and other families appearing in court and being jailed for teaching their own children at home. One would think we would have developed some discretion. Instead, we somehow managed to inform the entire community about what we were doing. Why wouldn’t they be excited about homeschooling? Well, they were – but not the way we were!

In the fall of 1982, the truant officer received an anonymous complaint and paid us a friendly visit. In the Lord’s favorable providence, Nathaniel was two months shy of the compulsory age in Iowa, which was seven years, so the truant officer lacked jurisdiction. After consulting with a lawyer who was representing other homeschooling families in Iowa, we narrowed our options down to four: 1. We could allow the school district to take us to court, but the lawyer told us that would be expensive and we were guaranteed to lose in the end because the Iowa Supreme Court had already ruled, and they weren’t about to reverse their own ruling. 2. We could stall for a time, but there were no guarantees as to how long. 3. We could go to jail, and although this may seem like a glorious option, we had four small children to care for, and after jail, there was still no solution, so we would have to exhaust other options before we chose this one. 4. We could move, which is the option we chose. A couple of weeks after we were visited, we moved from the most restrictive state to the least restrictive state (slave state to free state) – from Iowa to Illinois. We returned regularly to testify at legislative hearings and to support our comrades in the cause. We were there, in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, when the Taylor parents exchanged places – the mother had served her thirty days in the county jail, and on her way out she kissed her husband as she passed him on his way in to serve his thirty-day sentence. The legislature eventually legalized homeschooling in Iowa, but we remained in Illinois because it has the most favorable climate for homeschooling.

We will never bring socialism under control in America until we have stopped the main engine of socialism – the government operated schools. Their very presence has a subtle but powerful eroding influence upon the entire culture. If we don’t develop a realistic plan to dismantle the whole system, we’ll be left with no option but to ride this locomotive until it crashes.

TOS: One of your recent projects is the book, Teaching the Trivium. Can you tell us a little about why you wrote the book?

Fourteen years ago, when we were first invited to speak to homeschoolers on classical education, there was very little literature, beyond the Dorothy Sayers essay, which would be useful to homeschoolers desiring to pursue a more “classical” approach. We were busy raising a family of five, and we had little time for writing, but we began to punch out little articles here and there, we published a little magazine for seven years, all in an attempt to develop a bit of literature on the subject. When the children were older, we began to travel and to speak all over the country, gaining experience with regard to other homeschooler’s situations and needs. Then we made the big leap and went full time, gained more experience, and finally decided to gather together and revise what we’d written, fill in many of the holes, and offer our development of ideas and our practical experience to homeschoolers in a comprehensive and, hopefully, comprehensible volume. We certainly can improve upon our book (and in time, Lord willing, we will), but it seems to have filled a hole for Christian homeschoolers who desired to follow a classical approach.

TOS: What do you mean by a Classical Education, and how do your define it differently from other homeschoolers?

We commonly understand the term classical as referring to everything which the world highly esteems of ancient Greek and Roman culture, especially the literature. We broaden our definition of classical to include what is of good form and of lasting value, regardless of the specific time period. We then put these things to the test of what conforms to a Biblical standard within a Biblical worldview. In other words, we don’t limit ourselves to Greek and Roman culture, and we pass everything through the critical screen of Scripture.

When we narrow our discussion down to classical education, we are speaking of ancient Greek and Roman – and some Mediaeval and Renaissance – practices in education. One of the prevailing concepts among them was that of the trivium. Scholars can only speculate as to whether the ancients inherited the trivium from earlier sources, borrowed it from contemporary sources, or stumbled upon it themselves through natural observation, or all three. We say the ancients stole it, and by that we only mean that they took what is properly God’s order and they appropriated parts of it to pursue their own glorious ends instead of pursuing the glory of God. The trivium was used by pagans, just as the alphabet and the wheel and architecture were used by pagans, but there was nothing inherently pagan in the alphabet, wheels, and architecture. They may have used these things in pagan ways, but the things themselves were not inherently pagan.

TOS: So it truly is a Biblical model for education. Can you flesh that concept out for us a bit more?

The basic paradigm of learning is: 1) learn the basic facts, 2) analyze the relation between the facts, 3) creatively express and practically apply the facts and their relation. This paradigm is inherent in the very nature of things. The ancients formulated what we now call the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In modern times, we speak of “readin’ writin’ n’ ’rithmetic’.” But these are simply different formulations of the same basic paradigm of learning. This paradigm is recognized and reflected throughout Scripture. We prefer to move back to the Scriptural formulation and terminology, hence we speak of the Scriptural trivium of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Here are some examples.

“And I have filled him [Bezaleel] with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” – Exodus 31:3

“For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” – Proverbs 2:6

“... that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” – Colossians 1:9

The classical style of education is built upon these three mental or intellectual capacities:

1. Knowledge – the capacity for receiving and gathering information. (Compare: Grammar.)

2. Understanding – the capacity for arranging and connecting the information in a logical order. (Compare: Logic.)

3. Wisdom – the capacity for putting this gathered and ordered information into practical expression. (Compare: Rhetoric.)

We expand upon this in our book, Teaching the Trivium.

All three capacities mutually depend upon each other, but they do not develop at the same rates. A child develops much of his simple capacity for Knowledge at an early age. By age ten, there is a physical change in his brain, which allowing him to develop more complex or interconnected Knowledge. By age thirteen, he is principally developing his capacity for Understanding. By age sixteen, he is principally developing his capacity for Wisdom. By age nineteen or twenty, all three capacities should be well developed, balanced, and in continuous use.

We develop individual subjects by this same progression. We first master the facts (Knowledge), then we master the connection between the facts (Understanding), then we master creative ways of expressing and applying the facts and their connections (Wisdom).

We may attribute many of the failures of modern education – particularly with Outcome Based Education – to the failure to follow the basic progression of learning. If we leave some of the parts out, then things don’t often work well. We will create a learning dysfunction. For example, when we fail to teach basic phonics skills, then we will artificially induce dyslexia – the inability to read well. The only efficient remedy is to go back and fill in the parts which – for whatever the reason – were shortchanged.

TOS: Why would parents want to follow a classical style for education?

They already are, whether they know it or not. If we ever learn anything, we learn it by the simple trivium progression of learning. Though we all intuitively follow the trivium, there are advantages to self-consciously knowing what we’re doing. The trivium offers an accounting system to evaluate how well we’re covering the learning process.

However, you’re probably referring more to the subject matter – the study of the three formal trivium subjects: grammar (classical languages), logic, and rhetoric.

Studying classical languages – Greek, Latin, Hebrew – helps to develop capacity and skills in Knowledge. We learn to accurately receive and retain information. Studying classical languages will develop skills in mental discipline, will provide useful familiarity with professional and scholarly terminology, and will open access to ancient literature, particularly the Scriptures.

Studying Logic helps to develop capacity and skills in Understanding. We learn to critically analyze, arrange, and combine information in an orderly and consistent manner. Knowing logic won’t prevent us from ever making mistakes in reasoning, but it will give us the skills to avoid many mistakes, and to recognize and correct the ones we do make.

Studying Rhetoric helps to develop capacity and skills in Wisdom. We learn to draw conclusions and applications and express them in creative, comprehensible, and effective ways. Communication skills are important in everything we do.

So the three subjects of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric emerge, not only as very useful in developing skill in the three mental capacities, but as very useful in everyday life.

TOS: Some of your children are all grown up! What has life been like for them (and you) post homeschool?

Homeschooling never ends, it just matures. Homeschoolers never die, they just pass on to higher learning levels. Our offspring were all homeschooled all the way through, and they now range in age from nineteen to twenty-seven. They continue to live, work, and study at the “Bloomingthorne Study Center” – our home. When we stop learning, we stop living. So our home is still a school. We still learn things together. For instance, we still read together in the evenings. The men are studying hermeneutics together. The girls are learning horsemanship. But our children have moved on to do more interest-directed studying on their own.

They also work for our family business and on their own enterprises as well. Nathaniel and Hans invest much of their time in their Christian Logic publishing and speaking projects. Nathaniel also designs web sites, and sells natural honey. Johannah and Ava give lessons in art and music and sewing, and they and Helena sell crocheted baby clothes as gifts.

The reward is to see our children working out some of the principles we sought to instill in them. Our role now is to encourage and counsel them with our own experience in order to keep them in balance as they attempt to apply those principles in ways which were not available to us.

TOS: Your children are also gifted writers. Can you tell us about some of their projects?

We have always encouraged our children toward some practical outcome – contest entries, artwork, booklets. We sometimes incorporated this into their schoolwork. Once they had produced a booklet – such as the alphabet booklets, or the booklist booklets – we figured they would always have this to sell, and this may prove useful to them later in life.

Nathaniel and Hans have now gone on to write and publish their own logic book, The Fallacy Detective, and, Lord willing, they plan to develop this into a series of books on logic. Johannah has just written, illustrated, and published a full color children’s story book entitled My Mommy, My Teacher, and she is working on another children’s book based on one of the Psalms.

TOS: You also offer some teaching materials on family worship and other matters of faith. Tell us about them and what you hope to encourage with these materials.

Homeschooling is, for us, a return to Biblical principles for the family. A classical style of education is, for us, a return to Biblical principles for learning. We desire to discover and implement Biblical principles for everything. We don’t want to just clean up things as they erupt on the surface. We want to honor the Lord by setting in proper order the foundations of everything. We believe the movement of Christian families toward homeschooling is just the beginning of a larger movement away from mere reformation, and toward a reconstitution of the Biblical order of things. We want to do all we can to encourage everyone, but especially Christian homeschoolers, to reconsider other foundational issues from Biblical principles and Biblical perspectives. Over the years, the Lord has enabled us to produce a few booklets on such foundational issues as family worship and logical apologetics. We pray that the Lord will move others to expand their efforts in these directions. Our great desire is to see the glory of the Lord manifested in the good order and good works of His people.