TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 6: Case Studies of Trivium courses


A few case studies of what colleagues have been teaching in the Trivium so far. We’ve had Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, as seen in the windows of the Chapel, and how it applies to everyday life – or not; the structuralist theory of how every major myth and story, across every continent and every time, is written to the same structure – or not – there’s been a good deal on politics, which has only become ever more relevant as the hooves of a new age clatter over the horizon, alongside the question of how ethics and morality are central to politics … or not.

Other pupils have learnt about great British imperial figures; the hero-worship of the Victorian age; the great civilisations of ancient Egypt; the notion of culture itself, whether through Art History or Homer’s Iliad or da Vinci’s inventions.  Others have studied the Kurdish people and their place in Iraq; life in East as against West Germany; the notion of rights associated with sexuality; the history of the chili pepper and how it relates to the poetry of Yeats; the formation of alliances; the EU; the notions of being fair and of being good; family stories and oral traditions[1] – including the perhaps slightly awkward discovery that, in the one set, we had descendants of both the Gunpowder plotters and of King James’ secret agents who caught them … ! Martin Luther King, Galileo and his Christianity, the Labour movement, the class system, the genius of Alan Turing, the principles of heraldry and blazon, the morality of architecture, the cultural hinterland of cricket, resilience as discovered in English literature, the Olympic legacy, the Space Race and much else besides.

The point of such a diverse set of subjects, many of them topical as well as ancient, is that they form random spots of interest & connection in the minds of our pupils; the only criterion for Triv teachers is that what they teach, be interesting, and involve some element of the best that has been thought and said.  The best are esoterica with a purpose, and the possibility of discussion.

This echoes Dorothy Sayers 70 years ago: that while modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving methods of thinking (Grammar), arguing (Logic) and expressing (Rhetoric) one’s conclusions to be picked up as the pupil goes along, mediæval education concentrated on forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever (esoteric) subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle, until using the tool became second nature.[2]  The purpose, then, of soaking Oundle pupils in esoterica in Trivium lessons, is twofold: for its own sake, and as doodling material for the specific mental tools to develop in the pupil, so that they can be of wide, rather than narrow, intellectual and personal ambition:

“We have lost the tools of learning – the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane – that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or ‘looks to the end of the work.’”[3]


[1] Note Abbott’s emphasis of this, pp. 63–4.

[2] Sayers, 1947.

[3] Ibid.


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