The trivium organizes children’s education into three Biblical categories.
Knowledge is the facts – the dates in history, the data in science and the notes in music. Understanding organizes the facts into logical order – the reasons behind history, the theory of music. Wisdom applies our knowledge and understanding in practical ways – an essay on the Civil War, a science fair project and playing the Moonlight Sonata.
Proverbs 2:6. For the Lord gives wisdom: out of His mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”
Proverbs 24:3-4. Through wisdom a house is built; and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled…”
If parents taught their children these three skills they would have the fundamental tools for life. They are the first three liberal arts.
The Latin word “trivium” means “three roads.” Ancient and mediaeval education was structured around the trivium — the three roads of learning, which consisted of these three subjects: grammar, or skill in comprehending the facts; logic, or skill in reasoning out relationships between these facts; and rhetoric, or skill in wise, effective expression and application of the facts and their relationships.
This same syllabus of learning can be found in different words as a refrain throughout the scriptures, but especially in the book of Proverbs.
Knowledge is the comprehension of facts. Understanding is the reasoning of relationships. Wisdom is the application of learning.
Each child goes through three stages of development: first, a knowledge or grammar stage (through age 12) where the child readily soaks up information and memorizes facts; second, an understanding or logic stage (early teens) where the child asks questions and pursues reasons; and, third, a wisdom or rhetoric stage (later teens) where the child begins to synthesize what he has learned and to creatively express and make practical use of it.
Each subject also progresses through these three steps of development: first, the grammar or knowledge of the subject — the facts, the who, what, where and when; second, the logic or understanding of the subject — the theory, the why; and third, the rhetoric or wisdom of the subject — the practice, the how.
For example, the “grammar” of mathematics would include the math facts; the “logic” would include proofs of algebra or geometry; the “rhetoric” would include applications to surveying, accounting or engineering. The “grammar” of history would include names, places and dates; the “logic” would include reasons for wars, migrations, and inventions; the “rhetoric” would include the application of these things to current events.
The learning process naturally falls into this three-step progression. In computer terms, knowledge is input, understanding is processing, and wisdom is output. Knowledge/Input engages the senses as one brings in information; understanding/processing engages the mind as one discovers and analyzes relationships; wisdom/output engages the voice, the hands and the feet as one expresses and applies in meaningful and practical ways the things he has learned.
Children are natural learners, and they learn by the natural progression of the trivium. They teach themselves to speak a highly complex language in their first few years by first learning the facts — sounds; then their relationships — vocabulary; then they begin to express what they have learned — babytalk.
Learning dysfunctions develop when one interrupts this natural progression. Modern education does exactly this. In modern education, the knowledge level is overdone as the child’s senses are over-stimulated while children are taught things which they need not know, or cannot handle. The understanding level is overridden as certain ways of thinking are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) imposed upon the child’s mind without supplying sufficient factual knowledge and before the child can correctly reason the matter out. A child does not have the proper tools to evaluate the politically correct presuppositions handed down to him by the gods of “political correctness” seemingly by “direct revelation.” Finally, the wisdom level is misdirected when teens are encouraged to express themselves, but after years of mishandling, they express all their frustrations often in destructive ways.
Unless other things interrupt the process, the product of modern education does not properly mature beyond the childish “grammar” level. As such, he becomes a slave to sensory perceptions and is easily swayed by propaganda. He cannot discern fact from fallacy or proof from propaganda. He cannot define a term, analyze an argument, or distinguish between a material and a final cause. Accurate and intelligent communication breaks down when the standards and goals of communication are lowered. Fortunately, there are many things, which interrupt the process of modern education, such as the family and the church. Nevertheless, modern society has sunk far below the standards of education and communication observed by previous generations.
Modern education has lost sight of its true object: to equip the student with the tools necessary for continuous learning. Ancient education, with whatever faults it may have had, nevertheless had this object in view. Modern education majors on the minors. It teaches children a multiplicity of subjects, but it fails to teach them how to think. They learn everything except how to learn.
The situation can be compared to teaching a child mechanically how to play one song very well on a piano by memory, but never teaching the child how to read musical notations and transfer this to the piano keyboard. He may play one song very well, but he has no idea how to play another song. He is totally dependent upon the “teaching system” to learn more. Persons today think they must go to school to learn anything and everything. The self-taught man used to be admired. Today he is discredited. If the institutional establishment didn’t teach you, then you didn’t learn.
A craftsman learns to master his tools first. But modern educators have concluded that the basic tools of grammar, logic and rhetoric are antiquated and unnecessary. One cannot do adequate work without the proper tools. Therein lies a large part of the failure of modern education. If the tools are acquired at all, it is often incidentally. Where classical education focused upon forging and mastering these tools of self-learning, modern education focuses only upon the material to be learned. And the more “modern” the education, the less academic the material.
The modern student learns many things — trivia; the ancient student learned how to learn –trivium.
With the tools of the trivium, the student can teach himself anything. We believe it is imperative to re-establish the trivium syllabus of grammar, logic and rhetoric — knowledge, understanding and wisdom as the basis of our curriculum.