TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Part 4: Logic & Content


We need to point them in the right direction. Let’s tell them to look in the dark corners – if the truth were easy to find, you’d have found it in the light, staring you in the face, laid out neatly on the coffee table.  Look in the places others haven’t looked; in the obscure corner, the esoteric fact, the exotic idea. Things are always found there, in the last place everyone looks; indeed, once found, why would you keep looking?  Except that Trivium pupils don’t stop looking; they are trained to know that it is possible that there be more than one kind of fact or truth that can be brought to bear on a subject, and that the search for it is lifelong, incomplete and yet pleasurable and worth it, leading to individual fulfilment and mental development, not to mention spiritual growth. Annuit cœptis and all that.

The process can, though fulfilling, also involve angst and pain when crossing the threshold, and teachers can be witness and cause in equal measure – a privilege and a burden.  Albert Camus related his own childhood, his teacher and these pains of growth in vivid terms in this extract:

« dans la pauvre salle à manger maintenant pleine de femmes … il se tenait contre le flanc de son maître … collé contre la tiédeur chaleureuse de ce corps solide … Il partait et Jacques restait seul, perdu au milieu de ces femmes … une immense peine d’enfant lui tordait le cœur … être jeté dans un monde inconnu, qui n’était plus le sien, où il ne pouvait croire que les maîtres fussent plus savants que celui-là dont le cœur savait tout, et il devrait désormais apprendre, comprendre sans aide, devenir un homme … grandir et s’élever seul enfin, au prix le plus cher. »[1]

The next part – Logic (or Dialectic) – is picking apart those received ideas; presenting the opposing view.  In this way, Trivium is often based on discussion, on debate – the second moniker in its signature alongside the esoterica. Objectively, a statement that one encounters is true, false or a bit of both. [2] You either agree with it as true – “Concedo” – or disagree with it as untrue – “Nego” – or agree with what is true while disagreeing with an untrue element – “Distinguo”.  Teachers may or may not use the formal terms, but they oblige engagement with an idea and the subsequent requirement to prove it is false, rather than merely assert falsehood. The notion of a “safe space” would be inimical to a Trivium lesson (without encouraging deliberate offence – obviously), since controversial subjects often provide the most intriguing details with which a young mind can grapple.  Some pupils – dare I say some university students – detest that idea of having to grapple with the difficult, so their untrained response is retreat, not intelligent, compassionate confrontation.[3]  This may relate to a wish never to cross the painful, disenchanting threshold of life and knowledge identified above, preferring to remain cosseted in the comfortable views of one’s present state.  Trivium – gently – works to overcome any such arrested development.[4]

The satirical-fictional bartender Mr Martin J. Dooley[5] once observed that “it doesn’t matter what you teach a boy, as long as he hates it.”  However amusingly rough and seemingly 19th-Century a pedagogical attitude that may be, its kernel holds true: if a pupil finds something easy or unchallenging, then there’s probably little point in teaching it.  Unless the banal or received knowledge in question is a useful stepping stone to something more engaging, or if the pupil is still very young and responds well to grammar that is spoonfed – and even then … but I recognise some limits to this, of course.

One philosophical nuance to address here, en route.  In writing of a struggling, grappling, wilful individual, there is the risk of suggesting that I am idealising some sort of Nietzschean Pupil, overly individualised and self-obsessed.  Sorry to disappoint the Nietzsche fans, but no übermensch student here: too much danger, as I have said elsewhere, of giving rise to nihilism and relative truths, which are the opposite of that to which Trivium pupils should aspire, whatever the philosopher’s intention as to the creation of values and meaning.  Instead of being “overly” individual, Trivium requires social and critical engagement with others, through a process of careful learning and considerate disputation.  It also requires a recognition of the place of fellow human beings during the assertion of one’s own personality.  Individual fulfilment is therefore a joint venture with other pupils, and as there is no stated ideal held up to pupils as model, it is hardly the same thing as narcissistic individualism.  Alasdair MacIntyre’s philosophical commentary, though not expressly intended for the educational setting, is instructive here:

“To cut oneself off from shared activity in which one has initially to learn obediently as an apprentice learns, to isolate oneself from the communities which find their point and purpose in such activities, will be to debar oneself from finding any good outside of oneself.  It will be to condemn oneself to that moral solipsism which constitutes Nietzschean greatness. … the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some version or other and the Aristotelian tradition in some version or other.”[6]

Also important is his idea of space creation.  Trivium creates another “space” or set of spaces to explore morality and civility, for each individual pupil.  The class set, the house, the tutor, the family, through various Trivium initiatives … in the same way as Newman’s “ark” to take Christianity forward in the Church, it is hoped that a Trivium approach may, at Oundle, restore the weak and rocking national boat of pupil discourse on these matters, boxed as it is into channels by pressures from within and without the School, with little time otherwise for calm and reflection.  It is a cry of “Sanctuary!” and has many rooms.  Carving out timetable space, and other spaces through creating events that cut across subject, class and house lines, builds upon the thriving work of the School in other areas to socialise pupils in the process of building their individuality and moral frameworks.

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontier; they have already been governing us for quite some time. [MacIntyre was writing in the early 1980s]  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”[7]


[1] Camus, p. 193; Hapgood’s translation, pp. 136–7 : … in the poor dining room full now of women … he stayed close to his teacher’s side … pressing against the hearty warmth of that solid body … He went out, and Jacques was left alone, lost among the women … a child’s immense anguish wrung his heart … to be hurtled into a strange world, one no longer his, where he could not believe the teachers were more learned than the one whose heart was all-knowing, and from now on he would have to learn, to understand without help, and become a man … to grow up and bring himself up alone, and it would be at the highest cost.”  Also see the work of Haroon Shirwani at Eton, on Victorian conceptions in this area during the public school reforms, as well as a feminist critique of these notions. He points particularly to Gathorne-Hardy, J., The public school phenomenon, 597–1977 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977), pp. 469–75 and Tosh, J., A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 117–18.

[2] See: Jetchick, S., Concedo, Nego, Distinguo, posted at, accessed on 15 February 2017.

[3] This is one of those hot sujets du jour in the national press – see, for example, Aaronovitch, D., Being offended is often the best medicine, The Times of London, 15 February, 2017:

[4] A similar discussion about counterproductive self-regard might be broached with pupils about the “I have rights” phenomenon, i.e. those who demand others act for them to secure a right, without recognising any matching responsibility to act well themselves.  Again, this is nothing new or recent: Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was careful to state this 110 years ago in his guide for teenagers, and relates it directly to the need for truth: “And don’t imagine that you have any rights in this world except those that you earn for yourself.  You have the right to be believed, if you earn it by always telling the truth, and you have the right to go to prison if you earn it by thieving.  There are lots of men who go about howling about their rights who have never done anything to earn any rights.  Do your duty first, and you will get your rights afterwards.” Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys, p. 163.

[5] Or possibly his parish priest, according to Brogan, D., Table Talk: University follies of 1969, in the Spectator of 10 January, 1969, archived at, accessed 16 January 2017.  I can’t find any consistent citation in any of the early 20th-Century Dooley collections for this quotation, and there seem to be minor variants that go unchecked in popular circulation, suggesting paraphrase and/or uncertainty of a single definitive source. One colleague of mine even ascribed it, or at least heard it repeated by, a former Headmaster of Westminster School.

[6] MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (3rd edition), London: Duckworth, 2007 [1981], p. 258.

[7] Ibid., p. 263


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