TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 1: The Genius of the Unexamined

Oundle School Chapel Window, South Nave.

Oundle School Chapel Window, South Nave.

After three years and a successful start, the Trivium and Quadrivium programme at Oundle is embedded and ready for the next phase.  The central questions we are now asking are: what is the value of an unexamined curriculum to pupils’ academic growth, and can it also help with the development of character?  This series of 10 posts is for those interested in Oundle’s provision, its intended educational hinterland and ways forward. Here – with apologies to Robertson Davies[1] – is how I see the terrain.

Education is enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment;[2] a process of joy and angst and revelation.  Entering Third Form can be disenchanting – back to being socially, academically and physically at the bottom of the pile.  But disenchantment leads to re-enchantment as school progresses, then university where great progress can be made.  We sow the seeds of a harvest we may not see until they leave School.  Such processes are slow and not always (quantitatively) measurable.  Measurement may even invite deceit.  However, measurement is the theology of education now,[3] and like the old theology it sometimes appears a muddle of conflicting assertions.  Conflict and muddling can be good: as Archbishop Habgood suggested, a lust for measurement and certainty may, like deceit, be a sin – in this case, an academic and pastoral one.[4]

Yet what really gripes my gut is that the current orthodoxy of performability has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid lack of images to offer to us – to the humble teaching and learning laity – for our edification and our faith in the profession.  The academic sins of over-jargoning are rife: we hear of attitudinal assessments, criterion checks, mark schemes, assessment objectives, pupil- or teacher-led approaches (as if it were binary), interim achievement objectives, rubric bands, summative evaluations … on hearing such sermons, a Trivium teacher would slam the door and shout “Sanctuary!”  Just as the old priest in his black robe in Chapel gave us things as pupils that seemed to have concrete existence – you pray to a saint and see and hear images that look and sound just right for it – the Trivium master in his black gown in the classroom will ask you to form your own opinion, and give you the delights of civilisation in the best that has been thought and said, to know and grapple and debate with, on your way to that opinion.

The new measurer-priests, the cold figures of Examiner and Inspector, one must imagine as the opposite of this, sitting in judgment on high, dressed in whitish lab-coats, giving us nothing at all except a constantly-changing jargon of stentorian edu-speak,[5] boxes to tick and newer, crueller[6] sets of numbers to assign against each pupil’s name.  Gloria in excel sheets Deo.  We are expected to trust these figures implicitly because They know what we are too dumb to comprehend – and if we don’t, a school risks suffering at Inspection.  Pupils, instead of blooming as butterflies in their natural jungle of esoteric discovery and intrigue and debate, are plucked from Eden and pinned to the crisp, white, specimen sheet, ready for numbering, categorising and observation under laboratory conditions against standardised criteria.

Below the highly competent caste of education official, a system of examined-only curricula and a fetish for measurement has created an invidious subcaste – the most overweening, pseudo-scientific, pompous priesthood that childhood has ever endured in all its recorded history.  Its lack of trust in teachers and pupils,[7] lack of love for symbol and metaphor in the esoteric, lack of true freedom for the child and, above all, its zeal for measurable outcomes and abstractions of data, will drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Trivium teacher, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart and there is ancient method in your modern metaphor.  You teach to the tangent, not the test, you love your subject and the pupils love you for it: « Avec M. Bernard, cette classe était constamment intéressante pour la simple raison qu’il aimait passionnément son métier. »[8]  Schools that follow this approach – independent and state – are akin to monasteries in the Dark Ages, kindling flames lovingly to pass on to their charges amid the encircling gloom of the cult of measurement.

“Garzoncello scherzoso, / cotesta età fiorita / è come un giorno d’allegrezza pieno, / giorno chiaro, sereno, / che precorre alla festa di tua vita. / Godi, fanciullo mio; stato soave, / stagion lieta è cotesta. / Altro dirti non vo’; ma la tua festa / ch’anco tardi a venir non ti sia grave.”[9]

Though he is unlikely to welcome the monastic comparison, Richard Dawkins, a famous Old Oundelian, noted a similar atmosphere of freedom and inspiration under Oundle’s great reforming Headmaster, F. W. Sanderson (1857–1922):

“Sanderson’s passionate desire to give the boys freedom to fulfil themselves would have thrown Health and Safety into a hissy fit, and set today’s lawyers licking their chops with anticipation. He directed that the laboratories should be left unlocked … [which disturbed] the equanimity of other masters who had less faith than the head in that providence which looks after the young’.”[10]

This extended beyond practical work and into the academic – still with Sanderson’s scientific stamp on it, which the School bears to this day:

“Sanderson’s hatred of any locked door which might stand between a boy and some worthwhile enthusiasm symbolised his whole attitude to education. A certain boy … used to steal out of the dormitory at 2.00 a.m. to read in the (unlocked, of course) library. The Headmaster caught him … roared his terrible wrath (… ‘Never punish except in anger’). ‘“And what are you reading, my boy, at this hour?” I told him of the work that had taken possession of me, work for which the daytime was all too full. … He looked over the notes I had been taking and they set his mind going. He sat down beside me … and he began to talk to me of discovery and the values of discovery, the incessant reaching out of men towards knowledge and power, the significance of this desire to know and make and what we in the school were doing in that process. We talked, he talked for nearly an hour in that still nocturnal room. It was one of the greatest, most formative hours in my life … “Go back to bed, my boy. We must find some time for you in the day for this”.’ That story brings me close to tears.”[11]

So it should.  The locked doors of today’s Oundle are similar extrinsic factors: mainly, time.  To lock idle intellectual enquiry out of a pupil’s timetable is largely down to the requirement to pass exams – not something the School could or should jettison: it becomes a question of balance.  Trivium and Quadrivium are the School’s skeleton keys to these pernicious doors, unlocking several periods and preps a week, to the pursuit of unexamined civilisation and personal musing.  Sanderson would be glad.  So would my favourite author, Albert Camus:

« Personne en vérité n’avait jamais appris à l’enfant ce qui était bien ou ce qui était mal.  …  Seuls ses instituteurs, lorsque le programme leur en laissait le temps, leur parlaient parfois de morale … »[12]


[1] Davies, R., What’s Bred in the Bone. Markham: Viking, 1985, p. 16.

[2] See the helpful Prospero analogy by Stock, P., Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse? posted 29 May, 2014, accessed 15 February, 2017.  Even more universal is Campbell’s monomyth, where a youngster moves via trials from certainty to uncertainty and back (think ancient myths but also Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc.)  In Trivium, most Third Formers arrive “enchanted” from childhood and decent prep schools, even if the disenchantment has begun at Common Entrance.

[3] With luck it may be faltering – see Abbott, J. and MacTaggart, H., Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing our Adolescents.  London: Continuum, 2010, p. 257.

[4] Habgood, J., appearing in On the Record (with Jonathan Dimbleby), BBC: c. 1989.  Habgood was the Archbishop of York.

[5] What Orwell would label “pretentious diction”. Orwell, Politics, p. 107

[6] “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” – Shakespeare, W., Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6.  Trivium is hard and promotes struggle and initial division, but never cruelty or stress, and always with reconciliation and synthesis in mind.

[7] See Abbott, pp. 226, 238-9, for a related point on subsidiarity.  Naturally, “pure” freedom for teachers would be just as bad: some accountability and standardisation is crucial; I am making a rhetorical point that “one good custom [might] corrupt the world”.

[8] Camus, A., Le Premier Homme. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, p. 161.  Translated by Hapgood, D., The First Man. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1995, p. 112: “With M. Bernard, this class was always interesting for the simple reason that he loved his work with a passion.”

[9] “Lively boy, / your life’s flowering / is like this day of gladness, / a clear day, unclouded, / that heralds life’s festival. / Enjoy the sweet hour, my child, / this pleasant, delightful season. / I’ll say nothing more: let it not grieve you / if your holiday, like mine, is slow to arrive.” – 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.

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

[11] Ibid.

[12] Camus, Le Premier Homme, p. 101; emphasis added.  Translation by Hapgood, The First Man, p. 69: “No one had actually taught the child what was right and what was wrong.  …  Only his teachers, when the curriculum left them the time, would sometimes talk about morality …”


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