Last week Tom Sherrington (aka @headguruteacher) wrote a blog on a book he’d read by Martin Robinson entitled “Trivium 21c”. It got me thinking about how contemporary British education fits into the history of education in general and reminded me of a series of lectures that I listened to over Christmas by Professor Michael Drout on the Liberal Arts and their enduring legacy. In these lectures (with the rather grandiose title of “How to Think”) Professor Drout outlines the history and development of the Liberal Arts tradition and argues against the assumptions of many contemporaries that the Liberal Arts subjects are a soft option lacking rigor that do not prepare students for the world of work. He argues that, contrary to this, the subjects of the Liberal Arts, namely English and the Humanities, are actually the most difficult and challenging of subjects because of the nature of their objects of study, which cannot be easily measured and understood. Whereas in many cases the sciences deal with physical things that can be measured and quantified, the Liberal Arts subjects deal with things that can’t, for example emotions and behaviours. He further argues that they prepare students for any area of work they wish to enter and that, more than likely, they will end up in charge of whatever area it is they choose to go into. The professor isn’t trying to put down the sciences – he admits that he absolutely adores and is fascinated by them – but is simply trying to restore the respect that what we now term Liberal Arts subjects had throughout 2000 years of history up until the Modern period.
According to the Professor the reason that these subjects used to be held in such high regard was because they gave their students what he terms “the tools to rule”. Young men in the Ancient and Mediaeval worlds were sent off to be educated by highly respected teachers who would ensure they were versed in the subjects that were deemed essential for those with civic responsibilities. These subjects were known under the umbrella terms of the “Trivium” and the “Quadrivium”, derived from the Latin words for three and four. The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, subjects of study that were seen as a prerequisite for studying the Quadrivium subjects, which were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This makes absolute sense: if you can’t speak, write and think clearly and correctly, how on earth can you hope to succeed in other subjects that rely on these skills for their mastery?
The argument continues that the Trivium subjects, which underpin success in all others, have lost respect today because they never became “sciences” in their own right. Professor Drout argues that other subjects gradually mark out a territory and develop tools for measuring their objects of study. As a result, anybody wishing to study these disciplines needs to undertake rigorous training in the methods required to describe, measure, explain and analyse their objects of study. For Trivium, or Liberal Arts, subjects, the objects of study are people and the evidence they leave behind, primarily the written record.
These subjects really are undervalued by many, but studying language and history is of paramount importance. The Greeks, Romans and other European elites throughout history understood that their offspring, for whom they had great expectations of civic achievement and honour, would need to be able to bend other people to their will if they were to get their own way and consequently influence their world. This meant they needed to perfect the art of persuasion, the manipulation of language in a way that changes the way people think and therefore how they behave. They needed to be great orators who could force their thoughts and ideas into a logical framework in order to persuade others to ascribe to and believe in them, and, ultimately fight and die for them.
But it is important to bear in mind that these people who prized the Trivium subjects so highly throughout history were a small minority. They were usually men, and usually rich men at that. But they were also the people who made history happen. In other words, they were the people with power. The difference is that today, when education is compulsory for all, many parents do not have these kinds of lofty ambitions for their children and therefore they do not place such heavy emphasis on the subjects needed to achieve such goals. The families of many of our children are far too concerned with everyday matters – paying the rent, finding a job, looking after sick and elderly relatives – to give too much thought to what their children are studying. Because of its universality education is taken for granted and many parents do not worry about ensuring their children excel in key subjects. They leave it to the schools and just assume that the teachers will get on with educating. I’m not advocating a return to elitist approaches to education, but I think we can learn lessons about how education in general, and specifically Liberal Arts type subjects in particular, are and were viewed now and in the past. This then raises the following questions: how can we raise the aspirations of the parents of students who have little or no aspiration in the first place and, more specifically, how do we get them involved in ensuring that these children develop the skills of communication required to succeed in education and in later life? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we need to look to history to learn how to answer them.