Historic Trivium Today

To choose to feature the trivium, the three basic components of the traditional 
liberal arts, in a panel designed to present “innovative attempts to integrate 
learning outcomes from liberal arts education with the career development students 
(and their parents) expect,” might seem perverse to some.  Modern pedagogy, for 
the great part, has been more inclined to promote educational reforms that are 
novel than to recycle curricular ideas from the distant past.  Nobody could deny 
that there is relentless pressure on schools and universities nowadays to justify 
the validity of education primarily in terms of the useful, that is to say, its 
practical, economic, and vocational benefits.  What could the trivium, with its 
ancient roots, possibly have to contribute in this utilitarian day and age? 

In what follows, I will try to make the case that the time honored disciplines 
of “grammar,” “rhetoric,” and “logic,” are as useful today as they ever were 
in ancient Rome or the Middle Ages.  These foundational elements of a traditional 
liberal arts education, reading, speaking, writing, and thinking, happen to 
represent some of the most enduringly useful skills one could imagine with 
clear applicability for a wide spectrum of jobs and professions. And these 
“artes” look very much as though they will continue to be in high demand, even as 
the world of work continues to evolve at a dizzying pace.  
The following dialogue from Evelyn Waugh's 1947 Scott-King's Modern Europe 
(as reprinted in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh [Boston, 1999], 328-76) 
may help us to frame the problem more vividly. 

Scott-King is a classics teacher at a fictional English public school whose headmaster has called him in for an interview: “You know,” [the headmaster] said, “we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term?” “I thought that would be about the number.” “As you know I’m an old Greats man myself. I deplore it as much as you do. But what are we to do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ any more. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?” “Oh yes,” said Scott-King. “I can and do.... I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.” “It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.” “There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.” What exactly is this “long-sighted view” that Scott-King is talking about? His assumption is that education should not be undertaken as a short-term means to an end. A good education is worth having for its own sake, not just for all the other good things that it provides us. In his Laws (iv, 173), Plato calls education “the first and fairest thing that the best of men can ever have.” Of course, there are many practical benefits that a good education provides. These will not only be evident when college graduates land their first jobs, but will accumulate as they advance in their profession, learn new skills and responsibilities, change jobs, and take on leadership roles. And, yes, college graduates do make money, as it turns out, much more money, on average, than those who do not have college degrees. The “long view” of education may also include the notion that education not only prepares young people for success in getting and keeping “jobs,” it also can do much more than that, sustaining the well educated in all sorts of ways throughout their entire life, in times of employment, job change, unemployment, and, we hope, retirement. It is worth reminding ourselves and others at a time when the focus is almost exclusively on the economic value that education provides, that it is not only “workers” that enrich a community, but those who are able to be thoughtful citizens, perform useful public service, and serve as inspirational leaders of others. For those of us who work in public higher education, it is also worth reminding ourselves and others that there are vitally important contributions that the state needs from its educated citizens (e.g. intelligent voting) to which it is difficult to attach a monetary figure. The liberal arts are literally those that can be pursued by free people, free from the necessity of having to make a living while they pursue their studies. (Our word “school” is related to the Greek word for “leisure.”) No different from their counterparts in grade school and high school, college students should ideally be free from having to worry overly much about how they will provide for their livelihoods once they have finished their formal schooling. “To be seeking always after the useful does not become free and exalted souls,” Aristotle declares, in his Nicomachean Ethics, X.ix:
It is only in this relaxed world that education in the purest sense of the word can occur, removed from the looming specter of the job market and “helicopter parents” who hover over their school age children, fretting about their future vocational viability. The comments of Giambattista Vico some 300 years ago on “On the Proper Order of Studies” will sound quite relevant to anyone who teaches in American universities today:
Giambattista Vico's Theory of Pedagogy
“The situation of adolescents ... most certainly seems difficult to me, given that their parents, who neither have knowledge of such things nor even inquire of those who do have such knowledge, without exploring the inherent constitution of their children and without discerning their native talents, push the youth to study one or another of the arts and sciences, most often contrary to their inclinations, on the grounds of their own desires or to satisfy family needs.... Parents, desiring great financial gain, push their sons into the medical arts.... But if there is someone, as becomes a courageous man, who will persist ... so many and so formidable difficulties stand in his way that most men would be left with nothing more than a bitter longing for a sounder education” (as cited in Richard Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, 2007), pp. 477-8.
Whether this approach toward the liberal arts is feasible today, especially given the increasingly high costs of college in the United States, is a fair question. The pressure to make money to pay for a college education either while in the process of pursuing it or to pay off loans afterwards, certainly can make it extremely difficult for students and parents to take the “long-sighted view” as they face looming financial considerations. The consequent temptation, for them and, to some extent, also for us educators, is to diminish the importance of the liberal arts, to reduce their number of hours in the general education portion of the baccalaureate curriculum, to assign their instruction to graduate assistants and poorly paid adjunct faculty. The result, not surprisingly, is that the trivium, even though its component parts do continue to be included in most university curricula, becomes trivialized. Advisors and faculty often speak of them as courses that have to “be gotten out of the way” and students spend less time and effort on them than on the courses in the major that they deem to be more practical and useful. The “trivialization” of the trivium is not a new phenomenon. Trivium is a Latin word that meant originally and literally “three roads.” These needed to be mastered before students could go on the four advanced arts of the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These three liberal arts were named, without any sense of opprobrium to begin with, and, indeed, with a certain lack of descriptive color, the “trivial arts.” Given that these three arts constituted the most basic elements, came first in the curriculum, and had to be mastered if any progress were to be made at all in areas of further study, it is no wonder that the word “trivial” began to acquire its current connotation in the English languages as early as the time of Shakespeare. In Henry VI, Part 3, i. 241, for example, we read: “We have but triviall argument, More then mistrust, that shews him worthy death.” (The Oxford English Dictionary is the place to go for a quick etymology of the word.) That is its exclusive connotation today.
It is the goal of this presentation to remind ourselves of what the trivium meant before it got “trivialized” and to explore how much potential is still has to help our college students today prepare for life and work after graduation.