TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Part 5: Rhetoric & Service


The third and perhaps most important part is Rhetoric.  This is not simply putting together the first two parts – the first view and the opposing view – and coming up with a pleasant mix of your own; that is the starting point.

“To be fascinated by rhetoric is to be fascinated by people, and … to understand your fellow man. I want to pass on not knowledge … but love … we don’t live among abstract forms, but among people.”[1]

Rhetoric in the Trivium classroom is how one pupil persuades another – because he or she wants to – that the view he or she has come to, is the correct one: that it contains truth. This is not so that they all become barristers or journalists or politicians or other more-and-less valiant seekers-after-truth, but there is an inkling of this, in that the Oundle Trivium is supposed to encourage public service.  In other words, as already outlined, getting your ideas straight, picking apart received wisdom, coming up with your own position, is not something you just do for yourself, but for the benefit of others and for society, so that they can benefit from what you’ve studied; a direct but not directly measurable public benefit.

Work is not for the benefit of the course, or success in an exam.  An essay written is for discussing.  A viewpoint backed up by research is for sharing.  A disagreement had is to be constructively taken up again with others.  Considerate conversation is seminal to progress; intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of civilisation.[2]  Both have to be taught or rediscovered.

These are all very lofty aims for what is essentially a Third Form academic extension course.  I’m not trying to claim that, single-handedly, Trivium can take pupils from the dark valleys of regurgitation up into the sunlit uplands of fresh ideas and public service, all within the space of two periods a week.  Clearly, Trivium is not going to do that all on its own: but that is precisely what brings me to the final point.

The point may be weak or taken on trust, as it is probably not measurable.  I think Trivium bolsters, for the use of other subjects, pupils who have at last begun to develop – or rediscover – habits both of analysis and clarification; of art and expression.  That is why Trivium is put at the core of Oundle’s Third Form curriculum, so that those habits affect every other subject. As the years progress, it permeates throughout the whole school, and can be re-ignited with even greater cognitive power in the Sixth Form Quadrivium course.

The Trivium becomes of immeasurable use, so allow me a final metaphor in place of any data (yet). The overall idea is that these big building blocks of knowledge – whatever subject they’re coming from – will be all the better held together by the mortar that Trivium provides: a mortar that says that questioning, reasoning, thinking and learning can all be both useful, and pleasurable for their own sake, and that the earth between the silos of subject knowledge contains a wealth of resources and pleasures in its own right.


[1] Leith, S., You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. London: Profile Books, 2011, pp. 261–2.

[2] Trevelyan (the celebrated historian).


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