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For what it’s worth: Trivium 21C, by Martin Robinson (Part 1)


(Part one of this review was written for Crown Publishing. Part two will explore thoughts from the book which have a particular relevance to Charlotte Mason’s ideas.)

A surprising appeal

This book should have a wide appeal, especially to those who may place themselves at the progressive end of the educational spectrum, because you discover that Martin Robinson wants what we all want for our children. That is, schools where children can flourish without having their innate curiosity, creativity and love of life and learning crushed by the deadening effects of exams-driven curricula, policies and procedures. This isn’t just a man in an ivory tower philosophizing from a detached stand point. This book is partly borne out of the frustrations of a father who wants the best for his daughter and so his cause is one which should have a wide appeal.

A useful history

The book summarizes the history of formal western education from its origins in classical antiquity. This is a helpful thing to understand if we want to be able to evaluate why we do what we do. We can’t just take for granted that ours is the best way to educate unless we know what the alternatives are or, in this case, the roots from which our current model has evolved. The progressive, child centered model that exists in mainstream UK schools today is a relatively new one when compared with 2000 years of educational ideas and methods. The divergence has been a slow process. Much of it has taken place over the last century or so, but the roots of it began in the enlightenment. Trivium 21st Century helps us understand where we are today and why.

An interesting introduction

Robinson introduces us to the idea of the trivium or the “three ways”: three roads to knowledge, wisdom and virtue which are summarized in the words grammar ( not to be confused with our modern day use of the word, but rather representing our cultural heritage or shared knowledge), dialectic (the use of logic and argument and the pursuit of an ideal) and rhetoric (the meeting place where we learn to express ourselves articulately and persuasively in engagement with others). I say this is an interesting introduction, as I am not certain whether everyone involved in classical education today would agree exactly with the detail of Robinson’s own summary of these three and their application in the 21st Century. (For example, Karen Glass’ summary of classical education in “Consider This” would place the emphasis on synthesis as opposed to analysis, which I mention below.) However, there is much that they would agree on and I commend him for having the courage to take a step back and consider the possibility that we may have something to learn from the past, which is not an idea we hear very often in our individualized western culture today. I also commend and agree with the idea that the trivium embodies an approach to education which needs to be recovered (however we apply it in practice), because it is based on a wholistic view of a person as mind, body, heart and soul. Like Robinson, I think there is a deep human desire in all of us for meaning and significance, something which rises above mere utility and, because the classical model of the trivium was based on this understanding of human personhood, I think it has much to offer and therefore needs our careful consideration. In order to know how to educate a person, we must first of all understand what it means to be a person. The classical ideal sought to do this.

A point to agree on?

Robinson also explores the idea that the trivium can appeal to both ends of the educational spectrum – grammar for the traditionalists, dialectic for the progressives and rhetoric as the meeting place for these two extremes. Whilst this feels a little bit too stereotyped, I can see the point he is making and I think it is a valid one. Our educational debate has become too polarized and exploring some of Robinson’s ideas could help us find some common ground. Towards the end of the book he seeks to do that very thing by interviewing people from both sides of the political and educational debate and shows how we have more in common than we might think. We need to address the problem of communication that is too often focused around social media which, by its very nature, does not allow for nuance. In order to make progress we need to take the time to read and think more deeply. I suppose it is fitting that the Trivium, if applied well, can provide us with the tools to do so.

A good question

The book also asks a very important question: is a secular approach to the trivium possible? I love the fact that he is asking this question! It represents a shift which I have seen in other books in recent years which seem to be addressing ideas rather than just methods. This is crucial because ideas shape our methods and if our ideas are wrong then our methods cannot help us.

Robinson summarizes how the trivium has its roots in Christian education and explores the changes which took place during the Enlightenment. He wrestles with the idea of whether, in our secular pluralist society, which has rejected the idea of ultimate authority and therefore objective truth, it is possible to provide an education which offers “…something authentic, which speaks of the depths and heights of human experience, which can fire enthusiasm or spark the anger of debate, but without the need for an authority figure, a God, giving credibility to the whole exercise.” This reminds me of Julian Barnes writing in his Memoirs when he says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

I’m not sure that he clearly articulates within the book how he resolves this tension for himself. I agree with him holding out the the trivium as a helpful model which can be applied in any century because it is shaped, not by the needs of the time, but the needs of the person. I, however, am not a relativist. I would like to ask him what are the moral sources he has for the moral intuitions he feels.

On the subject of applying the trivium today, I would not choose to emphasize analysis in the elementary years. Synthesis (the ability to make connections and see the bigger picture) should come first, but I agree that analysis has its place and should be taught, as it is a vital skill we all need if we are to play our part in a democratic society. (Part 2 will explore this in more detail.)

A worthy goal

Robinson shows how the trivium’s goal is (and always has been) that of wisdom, virtue (good character) and human flourishing, which stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian model we have today with its emphasis on passing tests. He argues this by saying that when faced with a choice between a knowledgeable man and a good one we will always choose the good. This is another point that should appeal widely to all those dissatisfied with our exams-driven system but is also commendable because, again, it reflects what we instinctively know to be true about human personhood. Knowledge and skills have their place in education but only as servants to the greater goal – that of character development. The aims-based “authentic curriculum” that Robinson argues for could definitely help us break the cycle of constant change with new initiatives. If you want to see children leaving school as knowledgeable, skilled and well rounded citizens who love learning, Robinson’s book is definitely worth a read.

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Why “Education that Feeds the Whole Person”?

img_1809Today I stumbled across a couple of articles which were very timely, given that I wanted to use this first post to summarize why I think education is about feeding the whole person. The first touched on some issues relating to the nature of education and how learning takes place. The second raised concerns that the goal of education has shifted to passing tests. The third was suggesting that constraints on curriculum are killing students’ “thirst for knowledge”. Obviously there is variation in what goes on in classrooms all over the U.K. and I know that their are many different views out there, but the reality is that these concerns and ideas are being voiced by a larger and larger number of people and so the need for reflection is growing ever greater. I’m sure there are many teachers who feel the pressure to conform whilst trying desperately to hold onto their convictions.

This was brought home to me in a personal way this week when speaking to one child known to me who was becoming anxious about the amount they (as a year 2) were expected to write and the way they felt they were being compared to Year ones in the same class. When the parent broached the eubject with the teacher, it was clear that she felt the pressure for the child to jump through certain hoops, whether or not they were developmentally ready to do so. I’m sure her intention was never to induce anxiety but that was the result. It strikes me that we each need to consider what part we are playing, passively or otherwise, as parents as teachers, in contributing to this scenario, if we are not speaking out or intervening in some way.

So I would like to appeal to the common sense convictions of all those out there who share these concerns – it is only when we can remind ourselves what it means to be a human person that we will be properly equipped to decide what the goal and methods of a true education look like.

I use the term whole person because I think we need to recover a view of personhood which acknowledges the non-physical part of our make-up (as well as the physical). There is more to us as human beings than meets the eye – quite literally. This was foundational to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods. In fact, she could identify with many of the concerns that parents and teachers feel today – that she was part of a system which was not cultivating a love for learning in children. She saw them sometimes bored by lessons or failing to assimilate knowledge in the way that she hoped they would as a new teacher with the zeal an enthusiasm that many of us set out with. She saw the need for an education that was more than merely utilitarian in it’s approach – one which would “qualify children for life rather than for a living… The more of a person we succeed in making a child, the better will he (or she) both fulfill his own life and serve society.” Consequently she dedicated her life to searching for a way of teaching that would enable children to fulfill their potential as individuals, as citizens and ultimately become people who loved learning, not just because it was useful to them, but because it helped them to grow as a person.

She summarized the non-physical part of a person under the category of “mind”, including faculties such as intellect, reason, will, imagination, affections – the spirit or soul of a person – the thinking, choosing, decision making center. She made a clear distinction between brain and mind. Brain is the instrument of mind just “as a piano is not music, but the instrument of it”. It is the means by which our thoughts are sent and received but not the thoughts themselves – they are more than just physical impulses. Ideas are non-material.

“The message for our age is, Believe in mind, and let education go straight as a bolt to the mind of the pupil.” (Charlotte Mason)

So we must first acknowledge the whole person, but why should education be about feeding that person?

Charlotte Mason put it this way: just as the body requires food, exercise and rest for nourishment, so too does the mind of a person. And if mind, by nature, is non material, then it requires non-material food, that is ideas. From this truth, she applied the principle that, “if the mind feeds on ideas, children must have a generous curriculum.” By generous she referred to quality as well as quantity of diet. So the role of the teacher becomes that of feeding the mind of the child by laying before them a feast of the best ideas presented in literature, science, art, music, geography, history, to name but a few. But one of the things that really attracts me to Charlotte Mason’s approach is her ability to hold certain ideas in tension which are sometimes seen as conflicting with one another today, evaluating them so effectively that she was able to take the best and truest of various philosophies and apply them in a method that had delightful results:

She respected the role of the teacher in preparing this feast of knowledge and presenting it to the children, but warned of the dangers of over-explaining which she recognized often led to children switching off or getting bored. She had ultimate respect for the role of the indivual child in responding to the knowledge and digesting it themselves by a process of reflection, discussion and telling back what they had learned. She didn’t believe in just telling children stuff and hoping they would remember it. She acknowledged the role of personhood in accepting or rejecting an idea as well as the responsibility of the child to do the work of “knowing”. Just as the digestive process is an internal one for the body, so to for the mind. It cannot be done to a child by a teacher, it must be done by the mind of the child. (She developed a very specific method for enabling children to assimilate knowledge which I hope to summarize in a later post on narration and the habit of attention.)

In this sense she had a high view of knowledge but also the innate ability of the child’s mind to deal with it.  In our day, might we describe it as teacher led, knowledge-based discovery learning? I would be interested to know people’s thoughts on this.  Anyway…

There are other ways that she held such ideas in tension, applying them in very practical ways, which I hope to explore and summarise in later posts. For now, suffice it to say that she discovered a method, the value of which was borne out by “the unusual interest children show in their work, their power of concentration, their wide, and… accurate knowledge of historical, literary and some scientific subjects” as well as the way in which children learnt the power of self direction and regulation which is foundational to all learning and growth: education that feeds the whole person, for life.

In our schools every child has been discovered to be a person of infinite possibilities...How the children have revelled in knowledge! And how good and interesting all their answers are! How well they spell on the whole and how well they write! We do not need the testimony of their teachers that the work of the term has been joyous; the verve with which the children tell what they know proves the fact. Every one of these children knows that there are hundreds of pleasant places for the mind to roam in. They are good and happy because some little care has been taken to know what they are and what they require; a care very amply rewarded by results which alter the whole outlook on education.” (Mind to Mind, p.24)

“Mind to Mind”, by Charlotte Mason and Karen Glass

“Minds More Awake”, by Anne E White

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