The Trivium: Why American Public Education Doesn’t Want Students to Think

Thatcher Fox Richard, Opinions Editor

Long before the creation of the liberal arts education (the education we all receive at Clark right now) was something called the trivium. The trivium is the lower three parts of the original seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) was outlined as a preliminary learning stage in Plato’s Republic. The quadrivium was the following learning stage, also outlined in Republic.

While the education we all received in the American public education system largely taught us what to learn; classical education teaches students how to learn. There are some modern private schools that still use classical education, but they are largely based upon the medieval version of classical education (highly Christianized) and not the ancient Greek version. I will be discussing the original Greek version today, which originally was seen in Plato’s Republic.


The first taught stage, grammar, teaches the mechanics of language to students. This is the stage in which students “come to terms” with their environment (i.e., learning that a tree is a tree and not a cat). This stage is mostly about labeling things and familiarizing oneself with the world. It is often taught young as younger students are able to memorize content much quicker (this is also why children are better at language learning than adults). At a university level, this would be the stage in which students become acquainted with general terms in their content area (ie: learning what a historiography is, learning what citation means, etc.). When beginning anything new for the first time one must pass through the grammar stage (you cannot defend your stance or state a fact until you can define your terms).


The second stage is taught after the first and consists of argument building. In order to cite truthful facts (ie: that a tree is a tree and not a cat), those facts must be presented in a way that avoids contradictions or fallacies. For example, you need to be able to say “this is a tree because it has leaves” instead of just stating the thing you are looking at is a tree. This allows students to learn how to distribute information that can be trusted. At a university level, this would be the stage where you can fully understand a lecture or article in your content area. You are fully and confidently able to identify terms and can recite facts you learn from a professor or a reading. 


Rhetoric applies language (grammar) to persuade (logic) a reader or listener. It is largely what we practice here at Clark in regard to essay writing and research presentations. You learn how to combine terms and facts in a manner that provides wisdom to an audience. For example, being able to use grammar, logic, and language to persuade your audience that what you pointed at is a tree and not, say, a cat. At a university level, this would be essay writing, presentation giving, or even professorship. This stage, unlike grammar or logic, is the stage that all adults are in. It is easier to consider it a sliding scale of argument defense: you and your professor might both be in the rhetoric stage, but chances are they are much better at defending an argument or making a point than you are.

The usage of this system for public education ended shortly after the Middle Ages, being replaced by ideas from Petrarch which eventually evolved into the learning system we see in American public schools today: history, math, English, science, language, etc. However, there are still modern usages of the liberal arts in many American universities including Clark. Both ancient Greek and modern liberal arts curriculums were designed to give its students a wide breadth of knowledge. The purpose of a liberal arts education is not to teach students what they should know, but to teach them how to learn things and ask relevant questions about the world around them.

It is interesting, then, to look at the demographic of students who enter liberal arts universities like Clark. Many of us come here to learn how to think critically, and many come here having never been taught those skills. With the progression of the pandemic, there have been a number of studies reporting alarmingly low student performance in areas like reading comprehension and writing; both things which require the skills of the trivium.

It seems, with each passing year, that public education in America digs its heels in further to tell students what they should be thinking. We are forced, from grades K-12, to learn the skills our state deems necessary (history, math, English, etc.). When we complain about dislike of a certain subject area the response (as it might have been in a classical education system) is never “you need to learn this subject because it prepares you to be out in the world.” More often than not the response from teachers and administrators was “you need to learn this subject because I said so/because it is part of the curriculum.”

In learning about the trivium and quadrivium, there is a glaring motive for the American public education system: to create members of society who cannot think critically. There is very little encouragement toward students from teachers to think critically, and even in instances where students do analyze their world, that success is usually met with discipline for stepping out of line. It creates students who then go off to college and are expected to think as if they are products of the seven liberal arts when they are not. Thus, it is often frustratingly necessary for students to re-learn (or learn for the first time) how to think about learning and analysis without someone telling them every single step. We are intentionally educated in order to spend our youth, the time in which we should be preparing to experience the world, being told mindlessly what to think, where to sit, and when to eat.