TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A Bibliography for the series of 9 posts



William Gunson, Oundle, Lent Term 2017.

Aaronovitch, D., Being offended is often the best medicine, The Times of London, 15 February, 2017:

Abbott, J. and MacTaggart, H., Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing our Adolescents.  London: Continuum, 2010.

Abrams, F., The School of Hard Facts, BBC Radio 4 interview with Hirsch, posted at and accessed on 12 February, 2017.

Arnold, M., Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932 [1869].

Baden-Powell, R., Scouting for Boys. London: Pearson, 1967 [1907].

Bloom, A., The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Brogan, D., Table Talk: University follies of 1969, in the Spectator of 10 January, 1969, archived at, accessed 16 January 2017.

Camus, A., Le Premier Homme. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

Christodoulou, D., Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Clark, K., Civilisation: A Personal View. London: Harper & Row, 1969.

Connolly, C., Enemies of Promise.  London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1979 [1938].

Cory, W., Eton Reform: II.  London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. Transcribed from digital archive scan of 22 November, 2011 at, accessed 16 February, 2017.

Davies, R., What’s Bred in the Bone. Markham: Viking, 1985.

Dawkins, R., The joy of living dangerously, article posted on 6 July, 2002 at, accessed 14 February, 2017.

Dickens, C., Hard Times. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854., collected in Christmas Books and Hard Times. London: Chapman & Hall, 1804.

Duckworth, A., Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermilion, 2016.

Fordham, M., Is traditionalism right-wing?  Posted at, accessed 11 February, 2017.

Fordham, M., On curiosity, posted at, accessed 12 February 2017.

Gathorne-Hardy, J., The public school phenomenon, 597–1977. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

Gawande, A., The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009.

Grenier, M., Slow Education, the Trivium and Eton College. Ed. Robinson, Martin. Trivium in Practice (Trivium II).  London: Crown House, 2016.

Habgood, J., appearing in On the Record (with Jonathan Dimbleby), BBC: c. 1989.

Hapgood, D., The First Man. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1995.  Translation of Camus.

Jetchick, S., Concedo, Nego, Distinguo, posted at, accessed on 15 February 2017.

Kimball, R., The killing of History: why relativism is wrong. Published in the New Criterion, September 1996, and posted at–why-relativism-is-wrong-3484, accessed on 10 February, 2017.

Lang, N., 59 Quick Slang Phrases from the 1920s We Should Start Using Again, posted at, accessed 16 February 2017.

Leith, S., You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. London: Profile Books, 2011.

Leopardi, G. (1798–1837) in his poem, Il sabato del villaggio (Saturday Night in the Village), Canto XXV.  Translation by A. S. Kline at, accessed 16 February, 2017. Or see:

Leopardi, G., How can the dead remember? In translation by Tsung, D., as quoted at, accessed February 15, 2017.

Luxmoore, N. Essential Listening Skills for Busy School Staff. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2015.

MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (3rd edition), London: Duckworth, 2007 [1981].

Mazur, E., Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur, online lecture posted at, accessed 11 February, 2017.

Newman, J. H., Selected Sermons. Ed. Ker, Ian. The Classics of Western Spirituality.  New York: Paulist, 1994.

Newman, J. H., The Idea of a University, London: Longmans, Green & Co.: 1852.  Extract on universities from Discourse VII transcribed at, accessed 17 February 2017.

Newman, J. H., The Idea of a University. London: Longmans, Green & Co.: 1852.  Extract on gentlemen transcribed at, accessed 17 February 2017.

Orwell, G., Politics and the English Language [1946] in Why I Write. London: Penguin, 2004.

Orwell, G., The Lion and the Unicorn [1940] in Why I Write. London: Penguin, 2004.

Park, T., “Nolo Episcopari”: A Life of C. J. Vaughan. Berforts: St Bega, 2013.

Robinson, M., Trivium 21c: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past. London: Crown House, 2013.

Sayers, D., The Lost Tools of Learning, first published 1947, transcribed at, accessed 13 February, 2017.

Shakespeare, W., Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6.

Stock, P., Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse? posted 29 May, 2014.  Accessed 15 February, 2017.

Strachey, L., Eminent Victorians. London: Penguin, 1986 [1918].

Tosh, J., A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Trevor-Roper, H., One Hundred Letters. Ed. Davenport-Hines and Sisman, A. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Williams, R., The Edge of Words. God and the Habits of Language.  London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Windschuttle, K., The cultural war on Western civilization, New Criterion, January 2002, also posted at:, accessed 10 February, 2017.

Witheridge, J., Excellent Dr Stanley. The Life of Dean Stanley of Westminster. Norwich: Michael Russell Publishing, 2013.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 10: Metaphors, adolescent striving and spiritual development


Sestos to Ab­ydos … or not.

Hero’s light the examiner lit, so youngsters all could see

Where to go and what to know, for each GCSE.

Pupils bright and dim, they sit – and score A, B or C,

Then Reality! Oh … out the lamp goes: Leanders, all at sea.[1]

Trivium encourages independence.  If all knowledge is directed toward exams only, without strong, unexamined elements, what happens to an intellect when, after schooldays, the lamplight goal of passing an exam is no longer there?  Adolescents are looking for something to understand, to love, to enjoy and to define themselves; that disappointment may soon appear, by our hands, is unconscionable.

“Silvia, rimembri ancora / Quel tempo della tua vita mortale, / Quando beltà splendea / Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi, / E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare/ Di gioventù salivi? / … Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme …”[2]

Yet instead of these personal, joyful, long-term, open-ended notions that arise on the threshold of youth, we mainly offer fixed and artificial destinations of adult making to work towards, in the form of exam success.  With that comes the deflating idea that on reaching those destinations, rather than those of a pupil’s choosing, the necessaries of education will have been completed. Real life does not work like that, and nor should the development of the self that is bound up in the educational process.  As Mike Grenier aptly puts it,[3] it is soul-destroying for a teacher to have to tell the excited intellect of a pupil that he has to rein it in, in order to satisfy a reductive mark scheme.  It makes a teacher feel small to encounter such a young and capable mind emerging and hoping for stimulation, only to feel obliged to send it away unnourished.

This reminds me of two passages: first (as a role reversal), of Connolly’s small boy who teases the elephant, only to see it get up with a noble bewilderment, give him one look and shamble away.[4]  Second, of Camus’ teacher, Monsieur Bernard, and the concept of nourishment by advice, trust in the teacher and the sheer, turbulent stretch of knowledge needed to satisfy the adolescent appetite, beyond exam rubrics:

 “Voilà des croissants, dit M. Bernard … mais la pâte mâchée et indigeste passait difficilement leur gorge. … ils lui obéiraient, à lui qui savait tout et auprès de qui la vie était sans obstacles, il suffisait de se laisser guider par lui.”[5]

« [Les pages] … remplies à ras bord de mots et de phrases, comme ces énormes plats rustiques où l’on peut manger beaucoup et longtemps sans jamais les épuiser et qui seuls peuvent apaiser certains énormes appétits. … Il importait peu … pourvu qu’il fût clairement écrit et plein de vie violente; ces livres-là, et eux seuls, leur donnaient leur pâté de rêves … »[6]

The other side of that destination coin is that, once identified, the exam goal becomes all-consuming, particularly for the bright pupil who wants to direct his or her energy aright.  The exam eats you up; pressure engages; mental health fails.  Trivium and Quadrivium hope to address some of the root causes of this, rather than the symptoms on which some forms of counselling focus.  It should be that you can stop some of the problems of exam pressure from happening in the first place, by relieving the stress of over-examination in one area, while still maintaining progress.  The progress can simply become qualitatively, rather than quantitively, measurable.  This relies on timetable space being allocated appropriately, otherwise the unexamined course adds to the burden instead of lightening it.  Nonetheless, by its nature and liberty, the unexamined should be aligned to deeper interests and personal development and therefore not a great source of stress in its own right.  I have written elsewhere about the notion of creating times and spaces to consider moral and mental questions.  There is a pastoral element to this, too: Trivium teachers and pastoral tutors overlap in their task of encouraging reflection and consideration of ethical conduct in school and the boarding house.  Time carved out for this purpose, since otherwise scarce, is therefore of benefit to pupils’ mental health.[7]

There are no signal points on the opposing shore; you have to imagine your own, and you need tools and soundness of mind, body and spirit to get there.  On leaving school, a child is still in the midst of their journey toward fulfilment, individuality and personality, but they suddenly find that they have been following someone else’s – everyone else’s – fixed goals instead of their own open ones.[8]  They’re now left to find their way in the world, with new ideas to broach, but have no means of navigating the waters.  Trivium seeks to give them the tools and methods to strengthen their minds to freestyle their way through whatever unexamined topic of study they choose, alongside the mass-observed, measurable end-points of study provided by the examined curriculum.

Spiritual fulfilment is similar to this idea of a journey without a guaranteed, markable end.  The esoterica and unexamined nature of Oundle’s Trivium may help in developing an understanding of the notion of open-ended knowledge and experience in the spiritual and divine sphere, not just the academic one.  For example, Rowan Williams writes that

“… the flat assertion that the reality of God is something we cannot ‘know’ damagingly ignores just the complexities of what knowledge may mean – the process we are seeking to characterize is one in which we are brought to a point where to go on speaking at all requires a shift of expectation, away from the assumption that there will be a point of descriptive closure, some expression or formulation that is definitively adequate to what is in view. … What is lacking is not more evidence, more facts, more knowledge in the usual sense of the word. Stanley Cavell’s celebrated essay on Shakespeare’s Othello ends with the observation that Othello’s problem in the play was not that he lacked knowledge but that ‘he could not yield to what he knew.’ … When we acknowledge the impulse to continue when ‘ordinary’ description is done with, we are … accepting that what confronts us is still ‘interrogating’ us …”[9]

In the context of Trivium, we raise the possibility of an open-ended conversation and debate, without proposing the notion of a guaranteed (and hence measurable) answer or conclusion for pupils to reach, which is what exams and their mark schemes would lead an examined-only pupil to conclude.  In systemically suggesting and experiencing that the whole process of knowing may be open-ended – that the tick of a “correct answer” may never be available – Trivium pupils are able to be yield to spiritual discovery, where such concepts are essential, alongside their academic discovery.  Even those who decline the mysteries will see the benefit of being capable of thinking in such a way.


[1] WDG, with apologies to the ancient myth of Hero and Leander.

[2] “Silvia, do you remember then / That time of your life / When beauty glistened / In your laughing and darting eyes, / And you, joyful and pensive, climbed over / The threshold of your youth? / … When I recall to myself how grand those hopes …” Leopardi, G., How can the dead remember? In translation by Tsung, D., as quoted at, accessed February 15, 2017.

[3] Grenier, M., Slow Education, the Trivium and Eton College. Ed. Robinson, Martin. Trivium in Practice (Trivium II).  London: Crown House, 2016.

[4] Connolly, p. 35.

[5] Camus, p. 192; emphasis added; Hapgood’s translation at p. 135: “’Here are some croissants,’ said M. Bernard … but the heavy dough once chewed was difficult to swallow. … they would obey him, with him there were no obstacles in life, it was enough to let themselves be guided by him.”

[6] Camus, p. 270; emphasis added; Hapgood’s translation p. 193: “[pages] … filled to the brims with words and sentences, like those enormous rustic dishes you can eat at long and heartily without ever emptying them, and are all that can satisfy some gigantic appetites. … It mattered little … as long as the writing was clear and it was full of violent activity; those books, and those alone, would feed their dreams …”

[7] Luxmoore, N. Essential Listening Skills for Busy School Staff. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2015, pp. 15–21 and 67–68.

[8] Abbott, pp. 238–9.

[9] Williams, R., The Edge of Words. God and the Habits of Language.  London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 9.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 9: Subject Knowledge and “the best that has been thought and said”


Much of the following is closely derived by analogy with, or summary of, the arguments laid out in a cogent analysis of Western historiography.[1]

Trivium stands against cultural relativism.  “Culture”, “civilisation”, “excellence” and “élitism” are clean words here at Oundle, within a Trivium course that acts as a scholars’ colloquium for all pupils.[2]  Philosopher Allan Bloom wrote back in 1987[3] that there was one thing of which a professor could be certain: that almost every modern university student claims to believe that truth is relative.  Their goal would be not to correct their mistakes and then be right, but never to think that they could be objectively right at all.  Trivium, like Bloom, rejects such an approach, so it is useful to see how that approach has become prevalent elsewhere in academia.

It partly happened through changes in the meaning of the terms “culture” and “civilisation”.[4] The better sense of the former was Matthew Arnold’s in his Culture and Anarchy,[5] where it meant “the best that has been thought and said”, to be critically appreciated by an educated élite.  The concept of “civilization” arose in the Enlightenment, identifying societies that were based on reason (which includes faith discourse), open to new ideas and the wider world for inspiration. Then entered the 1960s and post-Vietnam 1970s, when a militant egalitarianism made “excellence” and “élitism” dirty words.  Up rose the belief, perhaps from anthropology, that all “cultures” were equal and that “civilisation” was an outdated and incorrect term.  So much for Kenneth Clark.[6]  Cultural practices that most Westerners know to be wrong – cannibalism, human sacrifice, female genital mutilation – now had to be respected for fear of offending or demeaning the culture in question. The obvious trouble there is that if all “cultures” and “civilisations” are relative, then we have moral nihilism: no universal, objective, moral principles to stand in judgment over any particular culture. That is a philosophy of anything goes, no matter how barbaric.  Well, I think I know nonsense when I see it.

When seen in the context of science, such a conclusion (that truth is relative) is all the more ridiculous.  In the areas of enquiry where they can be correctly applied, the scientific methods developed in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries, put simply, work.  Despite this, French philosopher Foucault argued in the 20th century that all knowledge was specific to one culture and purely political – in other words, knowledge was a means of oppressive Western power.  What utter tosh.  If taken seriously, science and Western knowledge generally (based on discursive methods like the Trivium) could no longer be considered universal methods for discovering truth.  Any set of beliefs could claim to produce “truths” of their own, reducing Western science and enquiry to one equal method among many, despite its comparatively astonishing record of success. Rejection of such rubbish is why Science-minded pupils at Oundle can be just as interested in the Trivium and Quadrivium curricula as the humanities and arts students are.  Subject or discipline distinctions aside – of which some are at any rate arbitrary – the philosophy of truth-seeking behind them is universal, and universally good.  That is an unashamed value judgment that rejects relativism and is the core of Trivium’s goal, whether it is ultimately capable of achieving it or not.

This is not ethnocentric, either: quite the opposite. In recent decades, some philosophers have tried to ground science in different assumptions, to develop concepts of, for example, “African chemistry” or “Islamic science”.  Yet this is hardly different from the historical relativism of calling Einstein’s work “Jewish physics,” or Lysenko’s claim to have created a non-bourgeois “proletarian” science.  Restrain any laughter, for in both cases the effects were horrific.  The latter led to the crop failures in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, and contributed to the Chinese famine of 1958–62, the worst in history with over 30 million deaths.  The truth is that the Western scientific method, and methods of intellectual enquiry such as the Trivium, being based on discursive enquiry and the testing of received ideas, are universally successful methods:

“Western science makes genuine discoveries. Western knowledge works, and none of the others do with remotely the same effectiveness.”[7]

This is not ethnocentric, let alone racist, as the knee-jerk reaction might have it.  It endorses a style of knowledge and method, not an ethnic group. These methods – scientific and intellectual – may have emerged through the Western intellectual tradition and social context, but they are clearly accessible to people of any background. Just as paper money suits the whole world not just its Chinese inventors, and algebra is more universally wielded than solely in its geographically Arabic origins, Western science and intellectual methods of enquiry belong to the whole of humanity.  From this, as a pupil, you also have to accept that, once in possession of the flame of enquiry that your teacher passes you, it will be your job to pass it on and widely.  Hence the importance of rhetorical skills training to Trivium, as the intellectual summit of the discursive process, enabling both summary and transfer of knowledge.

To conclude with hope: after the relativist depths of the 1960s and 70s, there came a glimmer of clarity from an unlikely source.  Straight after the terrorist assaults of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush called them “an attack on civilization.” This instinctive response was – distinguo – at least one positive cultural outcome of those terrible events and controversial presidency.  Anyone with at least half a brain could then see what was at stake, and it still is.  Trivium is civilising in this Enlightenment sense and cultural in Arnold’s sense (rather than civilised in some etiquette sense or culture-based in any relativist sense).  It allows modern pupils to see the difference between open societies with universal principles and closed communities with relativist, tribal values. If it were otherwise, these pupil heirs of Western civilization would be unable and unwilling to defend it.  That is why Trivium, by perpetuating not only the substance, but also the very notions, of culture and civilisation – the best and most effective that has been thought and said and done – which permeate all other subjects, is central to the Oundelian education.

Practically speaking, aside from the loftier aims, all this makes for more informed dinner party guests, less sheep-like, more global contributors and, frankly, better informed voters:

“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today [1947], when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?”[8]

In this putative age of post-truth, we would call the phenomenon Sayers identifies, “false news”.  If that is what it is, of course: as Sayers’ own age raised exactly the same questions, 70 years ago in 1947, then perhaps this is no era or phenomenon at all, but simply a continuation of how things have always been. Again, like teenagers with a “new” slang word that is actually a revival,[9] we believe selfishly that our own age is exceptional and original, without realising that every generation encounters the same issues and (perhaps wisely) revives the same solutions in disguise.  Hence the importance of passing on that crucial constancy of knowledge and facts, along with the realisation that we should in every area pass on a whole debate, and the means to have it, rather than fixed ideas, political shibboleths or the arrogant and supposed “conclusions” of our age to discussions that are inherently eternal (which claims to conclusion lead to such risible notions as the end of history).


[1] Windschuttle, K., The cultural war on Western civilization, New Criterion, January 2002, also posted at:, accessed 10 February, 2017.

[2] I’ve wondered whether children actually all want to learn, or whether that is just a schoolteacher’s view, since teachers were often the brighter pupils in the class and will often have enjoyed learning and school.  Perhaps not all children do, but they do all want to find out who they are – hence why the Oundle Trivium is “colloquium for all”, in Benjamin Evans’ phrase, not just for the scholars.

[3] Bloom, A., The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

[4] Also see the use of this word by Abbott, p. xvii.

[5] Arnold, M., Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932 [1869].

[6] Clark, K., Civilisation: A Personal View. London: Harper & Row, 1969.

[7] Windschuttle, 2002.

[8] Sayers, 1947.

[9] Often from the creative 1920s, 30s and 40s, unsurprisingly: “sozzled”, for drunkenness and “gasper” for smoker, are especially evocative of the vices, for example.  For a spiffing list of such revivals, see: Lang, N., 59 Quick Slang Phrases from the 1920s We Should Start Using Again, posted at, accessed 16 February, 2017.


Hear no evil, hear no evil, hear no evil.

Three monkeys - all deafHow liberal pupils become illiberal bigots, and how to stop it.

Many Oundle Trivium teachers this month have covered controversial topics in their lessons and done so boldly, thoroughly and sensitively.  This is fantastic work, not least as it requires considerable preparation to carry off effectively.  A few have even looked specifically at “no-platforming” — the trend of banning of certain speakers from university and school campuses in the USA, and increasingly now in the UK, on the grounds that their ideas cannot or should not be debated.  And there we enter dangerous territory …

Since Trivium aims to expose pupils to the interesting and the controversial with their eyes open and their questions at the ready, debates on “tricky” topics are crucial and need to be had, not shut down unless truly, objectively exceptionable.  And all the better that they can be had in the controlled yet open setting we offer pupils for those debates here at the School.  Many of the Trivium lessons I have observed are clear and healthy examples of this sort of free speech and intelligent, respectful yet incisive debate.

With all that in mind, I have enjoyed this article on how “no-platforming”, while (sometimes) liberal and well-intentioned in spirit, is too often deeply illiberal and damaging for free speech in academic institutions and political debates across the world.  Now, more than ever, our Trivium teachers’ efforts – indeed those of all subjects that admit debate – are in great need, to keep our pupils’ minds open and questioning, when confronted with a swelling crowd – from all sides – that doesn’t allow opposing opinions.  The Vandals are at the gate; we teachers need to man the walls.  Here is the article, likening such anti-debate movements to the worst aspects of fanatical religion: … 

… of which a key extract, on intersectionality and the shutting down of free speech at university:

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 8: Developing Trivium Teachers: Subject Knowledge and Pedagogical Technique


In the Oundle Trivium, we acknowledge the value of passing things on, including inherent controversies.  Rather than dogma or general knowledge, we are passing on debate: a tense, latent entity rather than a limp, completed object of study.  I have quoted Alasdair MacIntyre elsewhere in this series, and I’m grateful to Michael Fordham for his views here:

“Nor does being a traditionalist imply that I think what ought to be taught is fixed and unchanging. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is spot on with this in his analysis of tradition in After Virtue: when traditions stop evolving, they become dogma. All living traditions change: they are, in MacIntyre’s words, ‘continuities of conflict’ that incorporate their own fault lines and disagreements. I do not seek to teach a fossilised dogma: I want to teach the living, breathing thing we call history. This means I need to update my knowledge, stay abreast of new ideas in the discipline and be willing to change my teaching as time goes on. I seek to engage with my changing discipline not in spite of my traditionalism, but rather because of it.”[1]

This takes some doing, since as subject experts we have often forgotten how we arrived at our advanced state of knowledge. Subject knowledge can, untrained, interfere with teaching technique, because the scaffolding that built your own mental edifice has been taken down and forgotten, but you need to know how to build it for your pupils alongside all that knowledge.  Deep subject knowledge is essential, but so is the pedagogy of how to teach it. Both are (equally?) important.[2]

This is, in part, simply teaching a man to fish – except the trick here is remembering how to teach the man to fish, when you’ve been an excellent fisherman yourself for years, and you haven’t necessarily been teaching anyone else how to do it.  As usual, there is no guarantee (even if there’s a much, much higher chance) of a subject expert being the ideal teacher:

“…he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it.” “It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith,’ he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’”[3]

Given the breadth of topics taught in Trivium, by staff from all departments, a question is sometimes raised about whether it is a good idea to have a non-subject specialist teach pupils about a particular topic.  Why is my Maths teacher taking this Trivium class about Anglo-Saxon myths?  She doesn’t have an ASNAC degree!   Why is my French master teaching us game theory?  He’s surely no specialist in numerical analysis!  Fair points at first glance.  However, among teachers, only the intellectually arid tend not to have at least one or two interests outside their “core” subject, however minor or fledgling that interest may be. This makes for expert teachers, synthesizers rather than mere specialists.[4]

All that is required to teach the Oundle Trivium is a thirst to find out something more beyond our current capacities: there is no need for a commitment to undertake years of detailed research. Here is why: the following are two sweeping statements, which you may take or leave.  As teachers, I think we often underestimate our pupils’ capabilities, but overestimate their existing knowledge.  We confuse potential for competence.  You don’t need to have degree-level knowledge in a topic to teach it for part of a term in Trivium; neither should you only be on the next chapter, of course.  What you are essentially doing is giving them the central lines of a new and possibly obscure area of interest, from which you throw out tangent hooks – one of which, over the course of the year, should catch the personal interest of each pupil.  You are in this sense a localised maître à penser (though definitely not a maître-penseur), drawing pupils to intriguing ideas and to modes of tackling new topics; more informed than the enthusiast, more pedagogically-directed than gentleman/lady amateur, but less “qualified” than the professor claiming encyclopædic knowledge in the area.

To get to that point, through June, July and August, Trivium and Quadrivium teachers are expected to prepare their courses for at least up to Christmas (a single teacher takes the set for the whole year, allowing progression and a personal relationship to develop).  This does not consume large tracts of holiday time in school-based work.  It is almost more simply a question of what books you choose to read over the holiday, and should in that sense be a matter of personal enjoyment.  Finding out about something in which you are interested, in order to share that with a group of bright children, is already close to the heart of why many of us teach.

In pedagogical and professional terms terms, the freshness of learning or developing a new topic yourself not only gives rhetorical sprezzatura to your teaching of it once prepared to the right level, but allows you to regain some insight into the process of learning about something.  You’ve probably forgotten much about how you learnt your main subject.   By learning a new topic yourself, you find out where the scaffolding needs to go, so you will teach that subject better, sometimes, than parts of your core curricular subject, for which you have long forgotten the tools with which you built your own monolithic knowledge, and for which you may be relying on years-old teaching habits that, however successful could – being privately honest – probably do with sprucing up.  Hence what I’ve quoted above about the need to match deep subject knowledge acquisition with deliberate pedagogical training, to avoid staleness and an assumption of skills and knowledge the pupils don’t yet have.[5]  In this way, Trivium teaching can function not only as a provider of tools to pupils for how to learn any new subject, but also as a catalyst of professional refreshment in the teacher.  This is to the clear benefit of their “core” subject, too, and Heads of Department who realise this tend to be immediately keen for their colleagues to teach Trivium alongside.

As to individual staff, the Oundle assumption is that all staff could teach Trivium – and probably should at some stage, as it provides a useful academic challenge.  If a colleague does not, then it has to be asked: why not?  Preparation workload is the most common reply, and this has some weight.  The question of not wanting, or not feeling able, to undertake the preparation needed to teach Trivium and Quadrivium boils down to either: a) a lack of ambition and curiosity – which is frankly unlikely (or at least extremely rare) in the formidable Oundle Common Room – or; b) for lack of time.  I can sympathise with this second reason, particularly if the teacher in question has children of their own.  That said, this does closely relate to the first point, because it is not a matter of priority against family time, but against other academic time.  Quadrivium is especially preparation-hungry.  Yet the fine colleagues who teach it currently are hardly those with the most free time – they include two housemasters and four heads of department, most of them with at least two children of their own.  Preparation time, then, is unlikely to be a sustainable reason for other staff, except in extreme cases.  Also, once the initial preparation is done, subsequent years – while requiring regular update to avoid the staleness risk – become somewhat easier; the second year is often the most enjoyable.

All things considered, then, what Trivium and Quadrivium teachers have in common is two-fold, and should really be applicable to any good teacher of any subject.  First, a clear cultural (or scientific) hinterland to begin with – again, it is a blessing that there are so many such teachers at Oundle.  Second, an intolerance of complacency in themselves. They have an openness and curiosity to learn more, to venture beyond their core interests and into other ones.  They refuse to rest on the laurels of previously acquired understanding, or believe that their knowledge is “complete” for their task of teaching for all time, preferring to open themselves to new stimulation and engagement.  They are, in short, ideal academic role models for their pupils.  So: could you teach Trivium?  No doubt.  But if not, why not?


[1] Fordham, M., Is traditionalism right-wing?  Posted at, accessed 11 February, 2017.

[2] See Mazur, E., Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur, online lecture posted at, accessed 11 February, 2017.

[3] Sayers, 1947.

[4] See Abbott, p. 208: “Experts [as against specialists] … get outside their own subject … tackle problems that increase their expertise …”

[5] I don’t agree with the idea of entirely professionalising teaching as the Finns do – see Abbott, p. 248 – since you then lose all adults except those who are career teachers. The similar issue arises as with career politicians – that extra-scholastic influence is lost; the experiential pool is narrowed.  Training those new to the profession on the job, on the other hand, is crucial.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Part 7: Extras in the Oundle course


There are ‘extras’ in the course, some of which attach to one of the three arts: Grammar, Logic or Rhetoric.  There are three ‘major’ events: the “Triv Quiz” in the Michaelmas Term is an example of pure Grammar and the sourcing of knowledge.  Colleagues have even discussed altering Wikipedia for the week, so that human interaction is needed when an habitual source of knowledge is put in doubt.  The ethics were doubtful, so we didn’t.  “Trippium” in early Lent sees our pupils going out and experiencing more detail from a topic in their course, encountering things outside the classroom setting and altering their initial perceptions or received knowledge.

Finally, every Trivium pupil completes a “Connections” project in the Summer Term.  This allows a switch to their own interests, rather than those of their teachers who have trained their enquiry up to this point. The progression is important: just as a baby must first be spoonfed for some time, before being given the spoon, pupils receive two terms (Michaelmas and Lent) of curious material and discussion, before being told to forage for esoteric ideas themselves (in the Summer Term).[1]  So, Triv teaches obscure things, but we don’t give pupils the choice over what they want to study until they have two terms’ worth of being taught things about which to be curious, and have learnt something of how to find new things about which to be curious.  Otherwise, how will they know they might be curious about something?

“So I do not spend my time explicitly trying to teach my pupils to be curious: to do so would be to mistake an emergent property for an immanent characteristic. Instead I spend my days teaching them things that expand their world view, in order that they have more things about which they can be curious in the future. I want my pupils to leave my lessons with more memories, more delicious starting points, that will take them to places and new experiences that they cannot yet imagine.”[2]

The Connections project is pure rhetoric, and a generative technique (borrowed from creative writing methods) is used to kickstart pupils’ thinking.  Two often quite distinct ideas are clashed together by each pupil, to produce a striking and original piece of creative work.  They may also choose to complete the work in almost any (legitimate) format, not only essays.  Work ranges from the conventional to the bizarrely intriguing.  Pupils have produced essays on football + violence, as well as on connections between the collapse of Lehman Brothers + the end of the Belgian Empire; sculptures on money + politics, presentation speeches that investigate the meaning of morality by linking war + suicide; short films on murder + music, mixed media on Elvis + French poetry, piano compositions on nostalgia + friendship, canvases on fashion + fine art, a mock detective file on Shakespearian conspiracies, and even a Latinate Chinese dictionary formed from the idea of an alternative history of two continents.  They are crowning pieces of work for their Trivium year, and the best are published online.

Again, I refer to Sayers to explain that Connections offers partly an antidote to her concern:

“Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt … but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a ‘subject’ remains a ‘subject,’ divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects,’ so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon – or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?”[3]

By clashing together two ideas and having each pupil strive for a personally creative outcome, subject boundaries are blurred and entry to a topic becomes intriguing and personal.  “Connections” projects also provide a second antidote; that is, to Third Form exams, with pupils exploring a topic of pure interest to them just before the final exam preparation season begins.

At other times in the year, other ‘mini’ challenges are also offered.  One dares them to have a letter published in one of a range of periodicals; another is a Triv Trove monthly publication of a mini-newspaper of fait divers curious facts in the news gathered by a set; another set held a false logic competition (in the spirit of Douglas Adams) and so on … suggestions are always welcome.  All of these extras are amplified by the wider cultural literacy surrounding the pupil.  Families and boarding schools are coefficients to the pupil.  E.D. Hirsch (and more recently Daisy Christodoulou),[4] raised the idea of cultural literacy at home, which applies by extension at boarding school.  We are so lucky at Oundle and similar independent schools to be able to rely on a certain amount of this in the (educated and often relatively affluent) homes of our pupils and – where boarders are concerned – on the presence of highly educated pastoral tutors surrounding our children here.  Yet they are different spaces[5] and in any event such reliance should not lead to complacency, nor sticking only to the centralised lists of knowledge that Hirsch’s ideas and a national curriculum might offer. We should take any and every chance to encourage greater cultural “soak” in the home and house, both within and without those subject boundaries.

Hence the annual Triv Quiz, the fiendishly difficult, cryptically-worded obscure knowledge quiz, written by the Trivium staff, lasting a whole week and led by an elected house “Oracle”, where the involvement of each house team’s families and relatives are often the key to success in ferreting out knowledge and showing pupils where to find things.  Even the basic fact of entering as a house, rather than as an academic set, is useful in suffusing another area of school life with esoteric enquiry. Also, Connections, as mentioned, can be a time when non-Triv teachers are often identified and asked – dragooned? – by Trivium pupils to help with a personal project. And, it seems with Quadrivium in the Lower Sixth, too, no small number of parents are looking curiously over their children’s shoulders at what fresh esoterica has been brought home that day outside the curricular bounds. All this means that pupils encounter both vertical (authoritative / teacher-led) and horizontal (populist / pupil-originating) transmissions of knowledge. We haven’t by any means perfected this system yet. There is great promise in the programme and the sails will need serious trimming in the years ahead.

In the coming years, to match the small prizes given each term, I hope to develop a prestigious annual Trivium Prize to recognise the purest aspect of oratory and rhetoric.  This will be judged not on a speech or formal debating, which competitions already exist aplenty at Oundle, but a session of questioning; a viva voce:[6] a pupil engaging a teacher with existing subject knowledge, in a kind of mini-Oxbridge interview pitched at Third Form level.  The Prize would be for the widest-ranging learnt ideas (grammar), the most acute reasoning (logic) and most elegant cadence (all coming together in rhetoric).  It may effectively take the form of senior and junior Masterminds – the central chair – but with a discursive spin rather than facts only: a soutenance.  This makes for a motivating form of examination with personal interest as its purpose, not an external qualification.  It also reflects the more general engagement of each Trivium set with the essential traditions of rhetoric, but also with the recent “rhetorical” tools of social media, where useful.[7]


[1] The baby comparison may yet be apt – I hope to carry out research at some point in collaboration with other schools, as to the extent of the effect of this sort of education on the development of character: a fusion of the academic and the pastoral.  The criteria for success on the character front may be aligned with those of attachment theory, and what constitutes an integral adult. Duckworth’s grit concept may also be instructive: Duckworth, A., Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermilion, 2016.

[2] See: Fordham, M., On curiosity, posted at, accessed 12 February 2017.

[3] Sayers, 1947.

[4] See/hear: Abrams, F., The School of Hard Facts, BBC Radio 4 interview with Hirsch, posted at and accessed on 12 February, 2017, and Christodoulou, D., Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[5] One might look to a feminist critique here as instructive: the male space of school and its emphasis on growing away from parents as an individual; against the feminine, domestic sphere of stability and stasis.  Camus, again, offers a literary example, quoted elsewhere, about the departure of his teacher, leaving him at home with his mother and grandmother: see Camus p. 193 (Hapgood translation pp. 136–7).

[6] This sort of soutenance might satisfy Sayers: “The final synthesis of the Trivium – the presentation and public defence of the thesis – should be restored in some form; perhaps as a kind of ‘leaving examination’ during the last term at school.” – Sayers, 1947.

[7] Interestingly, and talking of developing the concept, there are places where extension-type courses deliver all or most humanities in the Lower Years – for example, Division at Winchester.  One original avenue for Trivium’s development was along these lines, but while there is overlap, it is not the function of our course.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 6: Case Studies of Trivium courses


A few case studies of what colleagues have been teaching in the Trivium so far. We’ve had Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, as seen in the windows of the Chapel, and how it applies to everyday life – or not; the structuralist theory of how every major myth and story, across every continent and every time, is written to the same structure – or not – there’s been a good deal on politics, which has only become ever more relevant as the hooves of a new age clatter over the horizon, alongside the question of how ethics and morality are central to politics … or not.

Other pupils have learnt about great British imperial figures; the hero-worship of the Victorian age; the great civilisations of ancient Egypt; the notion of culture itself, whether through Art History or Homer’s Iliad or da Vinci’s inventions.  Others have studied the Kurdish people and their place in Iraq; life in East as against West Germany; the notion of rights associated with sexuality; the history of the chili pepper and how it relates to the poetry of Yeats; the formation of alliances; the EU; the notions of being fair and of being good; family stories and oral traditions[1] – including the perhaps slightly awkward discovery that, in the one set, we had descendants of both the Gunpowder plotters and of King James’ secret agents who caught them … ! Martin Luther King, Galileo and his Christianity, the Labour movement, the class system, the genius of Alan Turing, the principles of heraldry and blazon, the morality of architecture, the cultural hinterland of cricket, resilience as discovered in English literature, the Olympic legacy, the Space Race and much else besides.

The point of such a diverse set of subjects, many of them topical as well as ancient, is that they form random spots of interest & connection in the minds of our pupils; the only criterion for Triv teachers is that what they teach, be interesting, and involve some element of the best that has been thought and said.  The best are esoterica with a purpose, and the possibility of discussion.

This echoes Dorothy Sayers 70 years ago: that while modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving methods of thinking (Grammar), arguing (Logic) and expressing (Rhetoric) one’s conclusions to be picked up as the pupil goes along, mediæval education concentrated on forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever (esoteric) subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle, until using the tool became second nature.[2]  The purpose, then, of soaking Oundle pupils in esoterica in Trivium lessons, is twofold: for its own sake, and as doodling material for the specific mental tools to develop in the pupil, so that they can be of wide, rather than narrow, intellectual and personal ambition:

“We have lost the tools of learning – the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane – that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or ‘looks to the end of the work.’”[3]


[1] Note Abbott’s emphasis of this, pp. 63–4.

[2] Sayers, 1947.

[3] Ibid.