TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 3: Grammar & Method


Trivium at Oundle relies on two foundations: esoterica (anything interesting that is part of “the best that has been thought and said”) and directed debate; the former often providing fodder for the latter, but interesting in its own right. The discursive style for the latter advocates the first three of the mediæval liberal arts: Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric.  This Mediæval influence carries no stain of being laudator temporis acti, nor some hipsterish fleet of retrophiles, nor in any pejorative sense being reactionary to the modern (indeed blended learning, for example, has been seen as highly compatible with Trivium).  Trivium is an adaptation; it sits at the core of a curriculum informing all other subjects, and does not seek to destroy those divisions so much as provide links, tools and appreciation between them.  The method does not revere the worst of ancient schoolrooms – Strachey’s “anarchy tempered by despotism” in some “grim ‘Long Chamber’”[1].  The method is timeless and therefore readily updated, to suit contemporary classrooms:

“What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. … Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does ‘go back’ mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. ‘Cannot’ – does this mean that our behaviour is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if ‘the Middle Ages’ is … simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not ‘go back’ to it – with modifications – as we have already ‘gone back’ with modifications, to … the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the ‘modernized’ versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.”[2]

The first step is therefore Grammar, but not as we know it. Not where nouns go in (Latin) sentences, but the Grammar of ideas:[3] the basic vocabulary, notions, building blocks, received wisdom, of any subject.  There’s quite a bit of spoonfeeding at this point, or even a Gradgrindian outlay of facts.[4] This is not really the point, but rather serves as tasty fodder for the method, which will develop in the pupil the right habits and arts.  I offer three seminal extracts to frame the whole purpose. First, William Cory, the famous Eton master, put it like this:

“In childhood you learn to read, to write, to cypher, to speak French perhaps [… Then] you go to school […] and for the next four or five years you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism.  […] A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions.  But you go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness.  Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge. … You fail again and again, but you are the humbler for failing.  You improve step by step; and the further you go, the more infinite is the world of thought revealed to you. … Self-complacency is gently trodden down; self-reliance is slowly lifted up.”[5]

Cory’s 1861 piece can be read as a companion piece to the slightly earlier work of Newman in 1852, on the Idea of a University.  Newman’s famous passage below describes what might be seen as the result of such excellent and careful schooling – the definition of a gentleman.  Nowadays, this applies equally to female pupils as to male and I quote two edited, lengthy extracts:

“It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids … all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. … [H]e guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. … He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. … If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.  If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity.  He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.”[6]

The gentlemanly notion of avoiding clashes of opinion might at first glance seem contrary to our practice of Trivium, where controversy is encouraged.  Yet there is no real conflict here: the point is to train up a young mind to wrestle with such things in adolescence, so that when the relative calm of adulthood arrives, the naturally argumentative teenage tendency has already been satisfied in constructive manner and led on to the finer, more instinctive and more clinical consideration of any issue which is the apotheosis of the Trivium method.  Without being unkind to them, we all know the tiresome chippiness of some adult friend or other who takes every chance to re-litigate their teenage arguments, or acts as a student politician might, because they haven’t quite grown up yet.  We wish on them no less passion, but a milder temper and less firey consideration of the issue.  This is the cool “shadow of lost knowledge” of which Cory speaks, well-earned after the blazing hot sun of adolescent discussion.  It is the smooth surface of the monolith once the messy scaffolding has been taken down.  Newman also wrote of a university education based on liberal arts principles that lead to this character:

“It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.  It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.  It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.  It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.  He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way … The art which tends to make a man all this, is in the object which it pursues as useful as the art of wealth or the art of health, though it is less susceptible of method, and less tangible, less certain, less complete in its result.”[7]

Those three seminal extracts are fairly close to an educational philosophy of method and desired outcome for the Oundle Trivium.  How then do we teach pupils so that they arrive at that point in the future?  Strachey (for once without mockery) quotes Arnold’s vision: “… it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge which I have to teach.”[8] Arnold’s emphasis on languages is evocative of Trivium’s own preference for linguistic terms – grammar and rhetoric chief among them.  In the modern form, it is discursive development that improves mental agility, both because it increases vocabulary and therefore the rate of compression of thought an individual is capable of having, but also because it is social in putting conversation at its core.[9] No doubt a neuroscientist could give a fuller and more accurate account of how language develops thought, and how goodness and precision in one engenders the same in the other.  For now, writer Cyril Connolly will have to do:

“For what he hated was vulgarity … of writing as much as vulgarity of the heart. ’To write simply,’ explains Maugham, ‘is as difficult as to be good.’ Perhaps one requires the other.”[10]

C J Vaughan also offers a similar view to the other reformers:

“[t]he real object of education … is rather to form than to inform the mind; not so much to communicate what I may call pieces of knowledge, as to habituate to patience and accuracy and diligence in learning, with a view to the application of powers thus gained to future use … Our business is not so much how to teach as to show how to learn; and to this end habits of thoroughness and exactness are results far more important than any extent of present attainment in the way of [curricular subjects].  The time for attainment is not yet. Our business is to sow; the harvest is afterwards.”[11]

For one of his farewell services as Headmaster at Harrow Chapel, Vaughan took as his sermon text, 2 Timothy 3.14: “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned.”  He emphasised the five lessons the school had offered:

“1. First among these … I will place the value of time … 2. The forming a right estimate of yourselves … 3. The necessity and the power of adapting yourselves to a variety of persons and circumstances … 4. The meaning of a social as opposed to a selfish life[12] … that is the obligation to act for others and for the body, as well as for themselves … 5. The great lesson of the consequences of actions …”[13]

More on each of these as we progress, as Trivium’s social and pastoral purpose is in some way akin to many of the great Victorian reformers’ goals – Cory, Arnold, Vaughan and Sanderson are the better-known names – who wished to achieve these goals through Christian teaching. For Dean Stanley, reflecting on Arnold several decades after the latter’s death, religion “… consists in that which makes us wiser and better, more truthful, more loving, more tender, more considerate, more pure.”  The same – religious or secular – goes for Trivium teaching.  Just as “Triv” resurrects and adapts an ancient method to a modern purpose, Dr Arnold “… made us understand that much that we call ancient was really modern, much that we call modern was really ancient.”  I agree with Sayers, then,[14] that Trivium’s timeless methods are therefore not so much a turning back of the clock to some putative mediæval ideal, as a refusal to see a good technique as fixed in a single time period, being instead prepared to adapt it to another as a good inheritance.  The desired ends, described by Cory and Newman and the others, remain unchanging.

So how do these high ideals translate to everyday classroom experience, and the planning of an extension course?  An experienced colleague of mine begins each year of his Trivium course with a lesson explaining that no pupil is entitled to his or her own opinion – shock, horror! – until he or she has the knowledge to back it up, or at least a non-received power of intuition about a subject and a willingness to subject that intuition to scrutiny.  Hobby horses abound in nurseries, and as teachers we should lift young minds off them, and onto firmer, maturer ground.

For fuller explanation, I offer here a loose adaptation of some of the themes in a piece on moral relativism by Roger Kimball of the New Criterion.[15]  There seems to be a contemporary entitlement to holding an opinion, whether defensible or not: a deformed instance of the well-meaning obligation that we each ‘respect’ everyone else instead of merely tolerate them. Unchecked, here we risk approaching the nihilistic and morally void, Nietzschean vision that “[t]here are no facts, only interpretations.” Rather than tolerate the metastasis of such a notion into other areas of life and learning, I would prefer Trivium teachers (gently) to correct a pupil for holding a factually unsustainable opinion, in the same way as you might correct a young child for lying.  Frankly, both amount to dishonesty, which prompts the moral obligation of the teacher:

“Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.“[16]

The correction is not punishment, however, so much as guiding.  An Oundle Trivium teacher acts as an intellectual Lonely Planet Guide, but with more arguments, fewer tickbox ‘must see’ lists[17] and greater emphasis on regular coffee stops for amiably heated discussion.  To emphasise that this is not some priggish undertaking, but a firmly academic sort of ethical project, let me propose another (slightly facetious) conception of a Trivium teacher, that of the poet Hesiod’s daimon.  They tend to the individual’s personal development of a conception of right and wrong, without either imposing an external one, nor cutting the individual human off from the healthy influence of other humans, and deities in which that human may believe.  Daimons are:

“… spirits of the Golden Age, who act as guardians to mortals [read: pupils …].  Not tedious manifestations of the moral conscience, like Guardian Angels, always pulling for Sunday-school rightness and goodiness [sic].  No, manifestations of the artistic conscience, who supply you with the extra energy when it is needed, and tip you off when things aren’t going as they should.  Not wedded to … what is right, but to what is your destiny.  Your joker in the pack.  Your Top Trump that subdues all others!”[18]

Quite a task!  Wouldn’t it be interesting to formalise the fact that Trivium aims for this blending of the objective and subjective truth in pupils?  That their quest is to find what is right and true, but by their own means?  An objective truth, subjectively true for all pupils?  Perhaps we might ask pupils to swear an oath at the start of each Trivium lesson, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (Reflexive American reference to deity optional as to taste.)  It would lend clarity to the ultimate goal of the programme.

Of course they can’t swear such a thing, because they don’t know the truth(s) of what they encounter – yet (note the Growth Mindset adverb) – they have to seek them out.  Importantly, they are not entitled to any opinion on what the truth might be unless they can back it up, so searching for truth becomes an ally in their quest to assert individuality:[19] their own truth is going to be the best, the most nuanced of their social group.

They are ultimately competing against themselves for their own, most personalised form of épanouissement, and yet this search has a social function, too. How to persuade their peers of their now-thought-out view? By their version being most able to withstand scrutiny – and honestly withstand, not petulantly so – and by their being able to express it in the clearest terms.  In other words, by process of acquiring the grammar of an idea, subjecting it to scrutinous logic, and presenting it in fine rhetoric, they will have become individuals and know that the process to achieve this all the more is through an enjoyable, stimulating, social search for personal truth.  That is the method.  What about the content: where will they look?  In what parts of knowledge?


[1] Strachey, p. 166.

[2] Sayers, 1947.

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

[4] Dickens, p. 355 and elsewhere.

[5] Cory, pp. 6–8. A shorter variant of this text, adapted by George Lyttleton in writing to Rupert Hart-Davis, which is crisper and has minor differences from the original, is quoted on the Eton College website here:, which version has already been helpfully aired by both Grenier, M., an Eton Housemaster and founder of the Slow Education movement, and Robinson, M., the London educational consultant and writer of Trivium 21C.  I have chosen instead to quote this slightly longer extract from the original, as it includes Cory’s conclusions about self-knowledge, relevant to Oundle’s Trivium project.

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

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

[8] Strachey, p. 171

[9] See Abbott, pp. 164–5 on the Language for Life report of the 1970s.

[10] Connolly, C., Enemies of Promise. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1979 [1938], p. 47

[11] As quoted in Park, T., “Nolo Episcopari”: A Life of C. J. Vaughan. Berforts: St Bega, 2013, p. 163.

[12] See the Aristotle / Nietzsche commentary elsewhere, made clear by MacIntyre.

[13] Vaughan as quoted in Park, Nolo Episcopari, p. 175.

[14] Sayers, 1947.

[15] 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.

[16] Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

[17] See Abbott, p. 222, on the unreality of checklists – but cf Gawande, A., The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009, passim, for checklists’ useful purposes.

[18] Davies, pp. 17–18.

[19] See Abbott, p. 139 on allowing the (controlled) space for a child’s effort to find truth.


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