TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 2: Introduction to the Oundle Trivium


Oundle Chapel Windows, South Nave

Picture, if you will, a set of Third Formers – freshly-minted Year 9s – sitting in front of you.  Newly out of prep school, they’ve had drilled into them for the last two years that knowledge is to be acquired in order to pass a series of exams – Common Entrance, or Scholarship – despite prep schools’ best intentions and efforts.  They bear the limiting imprint of a system that divides knowledge into two categories: “necessary” and “unnecessary”, and obliges them only to learn the former.[1]  And, over the next two or three years, despite more intentions and efforts, these same pupils may once again conclude that knowledge is only for passing another series of exams, their (I)GCSEs.

This is academic poison.  It kills curiosity.  It kills enquiry.  But it is also poisonous to character and manners.  Trivium, for all pupils in the Oundle Third Form, is a dual antidote; Quadrivium, its optional Lower Sixth sibling.  The statement above requires research, on which more later, but the hypothesis is clear: a mind trained from its youth up to be curious as to itself and to humanity at large, with a broader awareness of the diverse realms of knowledge, is likely to develop into a more questing, wiser and humane soul, as well as a more individual one.  The process, like the pyramid on the American dollar-bill and like any human being, is always a work-in-progress.

I’d like to explain our attempts at Oundle to build habits that fight against the received ideas of “necessity” and help Oundelians realise that learning can be for its own sake, but also for that of character;[2] that learning, adapting and engaging can be worthy pleasures outside the examined system: and life-long ones.  This is a long game, and not yet fully substantiated by findings beyond the obvious, but I take encouragement that it stands in opposition to the short-game racket of measurable progress all too fashionable under the ironically fuliginous criteria of some (not all) of today’s inspection and examination régimes – again, despite some great intentions.  It emphatically does not stand against the notion of exams, nor against other subjects.  Quite the opposite: it recognises that an examined-only curriculum, or even a primarily-examined curriculum, is insufficient for any age[3] and must be supplemented, in decent measure, by intensive exposure to an unexamined moiety.  Ideally, of one particularly effective type, which we are developing here as the Oundle Trivium.[4]  It relates only partly to the mediæval variety and to other “Trivium” iterations, as Oundle has forged a unique path.

Trivium is, like other subjects at this age, necessarily preparatory – teaching how to think and giving a great many things about which to think, rather than expecting pupils to master or doctor subjects in their early teens. As for content, a bricks & mortar analogy seems apt: large, disparate blocks of examined knowledge need a way of being ordered if they are to cohere and form the beginnings of a nuanced world view. Trivium is its mortar, giving pupils the means to hold big ideas in place in relation to each other, stable in the reasoning around them.  Without that reasoning, pupils are condemned merely to follow custom and rubric.  Just as Albert Camus railed as a child against the custom of being given iron plates instead of the adults’ china at dinner, because the custom was not – and could not – be explained by those adults, so our Oundelians become profoundly frustrated at the lack of time given to them to reason, think and muse, instead of follow the custom of learning for the exam.  Reasoning and filter are everything :

« … sauf celles des enfants qui mangeaient dans des gamelles de fer.  (Pour des raisons d’ailleurs mystérieuses, l’insuffisance de la vaisselle peut-être ou, comme le prétendit un jour la grand-mère, pour éviter la casse, alors que ni lui ni son frère n’étaient maladroits de leurs mains.  Mais les traditions familiales n’ont souvent pas de fondement plus solide, et les ethnologues me font bien rire qui cherchent la raison de tant de rites mystérieux.  Le vrai mystère, dans beaucoup de cas, c’est qu’il n’y a pas de raison du tout.) »[5]

The end goal of all this is that pupils, in years ahead, lead more reasoned lives, in the Socratic sense of knowing oneself; more Christian ones, in Oundle’s Anglican sense; and lives with more of a sense of wonder, in the artistic or enchanting sense – rather than relying only on measurable views of the world, or the assumption of certainty.

There is an essential connection to all parts of the School here, particularly the pastoral, since reasoned or virtuous thought is all very well, but there is no guarantee of its translation into action outside the discursive setting. A pupil may well understand the theory of what is right – either academically or in his/her personal dealings – but the conversation ended, what will they actually do?  What will they say?  What will they believe?  Whom will they help?  How will they vote? (I jest.)  John Henry Newman identified this in a discussion of the danger of “achievements”.

“Now the danger of an elegant and polite education is, that it separates feeling and acting; it teaches us to think, speak, and be affected aright, without forcing us to practise what is right.”[6]

He goes on to illustrate the point that reading literature, and feeling the moral experiences contained within it, is no guarantee of that morality sticking to the reader once the book is set aside:

“The refinement which literature gives, is that of thinking, feeling, knowing, and speaking right, not of acting right; and thus, while it makes the manners amiable, and the conversation decorous and agreeable, it has no tendency to make the conduct, the practice of the man virtuous. … [Books] are dangerous, in themselves; – that is, if we allow refinement to stand in the place of hardy, rough-handed obedience.”[7]

To have any lasting effect, then, learning about “the best that has been thought and said”[8] in the classroom, or whatever space, has to be discussed, and then linked to the child’s action elsewhere in the School.  For the study of esoterica and ethical debate in Trivium lessons to have any real effect on character we need, in modern jargon, a “whole-school approach”.  Trivium lessons should take pupils from where they are, to where they are not: drawing on everyday examples from School and home life to relate the esoteric and ethical points to pupils’ lives:

“An umpire’s decision; the degree to which one may transgress the spirit of a regulation without being trapped by the letter: on such questions as these, children are born casuists, and their natural propensity only needs to be developed and trained – and especially, brought into an intelligible relationship with the events in the grown-up world. The newspapers are full of good material for such exercises: legal decisions, on the one hand, in cases where the cause at issue is not too abstruse; on the other, fallacious reasoning and muddleheaded arguments, with which the correspondence columns of certain papers one could name are abundantly stocked.”   “This is the moment when precis-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.”[9]

The inverse is the hope that other areas of the School will then feed back into the loop.  They would encourage events on the sports field, in Chapel, in house, in the concert hall and so forth, to be actively reflected on voluntarily by pupils in their Trivium lessons and tutorials. All the more grist to the mental and spiritual mill of each pupil, as part of a coherent and (in Socrates’ sense) examined experience.[10]

Let’s return now to the first line of discussion: the division of facts into necessary and unnecessary.  For the purposes of examination, of course, this is not entirely without merit.  Some facts may well be more important to know, more allusive and more foundational.  It is (deliberately) inconsistent of Conan Doyle, for example, to have created Sherlock Holmes as ignorant of the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  In literary terms it adds strange depth, since a man of that intellectual calibre – psychological analyses aside – would surely know of such a fact. Yet it does raise an educational point: why should he know about it? What purpose would that serve: and is such a utilitarian question suitable for education, or are we straying away from intellectual development and into supply-side economics instead?[11]  In educational terms, it is the grappling and struggling with experiences and ideas – any ideas – that is the essence of mental and spiritual development, rather than the bare acquisition of a particular set of facts and nothing more, Gradgrind-style.  Dickens’ fictional schoolboy Bitzer’s rote-learnt definition of a horse, as demanded by Mr Gradgrind, is a parody of the soulless acquisition of factual knowledge, without spirit or context:

“‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’  Thus (and much more) Bitzer.”  ‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’”[12]

It is that very particularity that Oundle strives against through exposure to esoterica in Trivium lessons.  Not as an opposition to exams, but as a counterweight to the attitude of excluding non-examined knowledge from consideration which exams can encourage, and which happens inadvertently: despite subject teachers’ skill and intentions.  These are, after all, the exact same teachers who teach the Oundle Trivium alongside their other subject. The prioritising of learning certain facts over others is inevitable within a systemic setup that puts all or undue weight on exams.[13]

Where that weight is distributed a little more evenly across examined and unexamined, pupils are more at liberty to prioritise not only the facts necessary to pass a test, but also those which interest them most. This, in turn, opens the door to greater satisfaction of curiosity, which flood leads on to fortune, and ultimately a more humane and universal, so also more individualised approach to life, to other people and to what can be known – rather than a merely utilitarian interest in those things.  George Orwell’s notion of individual liberty sits well with this, in the sense of the “non-official communal” activities of the English in particular, where social engagement does not detract from individual integrity, and stands apart from people being “numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’”.[14]  Hence a common curriculum of nationally-measurable standard is supplemented at Oundle with a free and unexamined curriculum of (eventually) personalised interest – “the liberty … to choose your own amusements instead of having them [all] chosen for you from above.”[15]  This individual liberty can lead on to discussion and the spread of ideas, for the benefit of each and all.

The problem is often said to lie further ahead – in university admissions, or in the job market, where qualifications are sought, and those require uniformity of standard.[16]  But can we not lead the conversation to the benefit of those areas? Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Oxford and Cambridge tutors, for example, would love to see an active mind rather than one only qualified on paper by standardised testing – an ideal candidate will be both, of course.  When employing a new professional, those hiring want original or creative thinkers – in the most effective industries, that is – rather than those who have only their GCSE or A-Level certificates. This is not to say that those exams forbid thought about what they choose not to include in the mark scheme – and some forward-thinking exam systems (the Pre-U might be one example) state their encouragement of broader thinking.  Yet the very existence of a mark scheme suggests a rubric that will prioritise some facts over others.  As soon as that is the case, knowledge seeking is restrained unless counterbalanced by unexamined initiatives.  Next, I will outline the particular kind of unexamined curriculum offered here, its method and content.


[1] Abbott, p. 55, on the dangers of over-rigid schooling restricting development at adolescence.

[2] Abbott offers a useful summary of Arnold at pp. 99-102.  A natural cross-reference is to Strachey, L., Eminent Victorians. London: Penguin, 1986 [1918].  Parts of Abbott’s book are hugely enlightening.  Another Victorian-Edwardian reformer to mention, in the context of teenagers is, of course, Lord Baden-Powell, the energetic and charismatic old Carthusian who believed in the best values of the public schools as character factories, and set about creating his Scout Movement to emulate those apects of them.  See Baden-Powell, R., Scouting for Boys. London: Pearson, 1967 [1907], passim.

[3] Rab Butler recognised (and perhaps thought discursively useful) the inadequacy of any syllabus – see Abbott p. 166.

[4] And let’s avoid here the crashing and self-regarding cliché of believing that our age is special.  Children are children and have always been worth the trouble of teaching properly, which is to say for its and their own sake, not that of whatever economic utility the current era requests.

[5] Camus, pp. 129-30.  Emphasis added.  Hapgood’s translation, p. 89: “… except those of the children, who ate from iron dishes. (The reasons for that matter were a mystery, lack of china perhaps, or, as the grandmother once stated, to save breakage, though neither he nor his brother was clumsy with his hands.  But family traditions are often no more soundly based, and ethnologists certainly make me laugh when they seek the reasons for so many mysterious rituals.  The real mystery, in many cases, is that there is no reason at all.)”

[6] Newman, J. H., Selected Sermons. Ed. Ker, Ian. The Classics of Western Spirituality.  New York: Paulist, 1994, pp. 153-4.

[7] Ibid., 153-5.

[8] M. Arnold’s conception, discussed elsewhere.

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

[10] Examination in the sense of reflecting on certain issues, and on one’s own life: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.

[11] Abbott, pp. xxv and 127.

[12] Dickens, C., Hard Times. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854., collected in Christmas Books and Hard Times. London: Chapman & Hall, 1804, p. 355.

[13] Weight is the apposite image, I think: see Abbott on how you don’t fatten a hog by weighing it, at p. 242.

[14] Orwell, Lion and Unicorn, pp. 15–16.

[15] Ibid., p. 16.

[16] Even William Cory, quoted elsewhere, suggested the same issue back in 1861 – in choosing courses of study, the “character of the school will be determined … by the attractive forces, first of the Universities, then, in a lower degree, of the Army [for which read any other modern profession] … and it will be the chief interest of the teachers to prepare them for College honours and emoluments [for which read A* grades or unconditional offers from Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group].” 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, pp. 9–10.


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