TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Part 7: Extras in the Oundle course

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There are ‘extras’ in the course, some of which attach to one of the three arts: Grammar, Logic or Rhetoric.  There are three ‘major’ events: the “Triv Quiz” in the Michaelmas Term is an example of pure Grammar and the sourcing of knowledge.  Colleagues have even discussed altering Wikipedia for the week, so that human interaction is needed when an habitual source of knowledge is put in doubt.  The ethics were doubtful, so we didn’t.  “Trippium” in early Lent sees our pupils going out and experiencing more detail from a topic in their course, encountering things outside the classroom setting and altering their initial perceptions or received knowledge.

Finally, every Trivium pupil completes a “Connections” project in the Summer Term.  This allows a switch to their own interests, rather than those of their teachers who have trained their enquiry up to this point. The progression is important: just as a baby must first be spoonfed for some time, before being given the spoon, pupils receive two terms (Michaelmas and Lent) of curious material and discussion, before being told to forage for esoteric ideas themselves (in the Summer Term).[1]  So, Triv teaches obscure things, but we don’t give pupils the choice over what they want to study until they have two terms’ worth of being taught things about which to be curious, and have learnt something of how to find new things about which to be curious.  Otherwise, how will they know they might be curious about something?

“So I do not spend my time explicitly trying to teach my pupils to be curious: to do so would be to mistake an emergent property for an immanent characteristic. Instead I spend my days teaching them things that expand their world view, in order that they have more things about which they can be curious in the future. I want my pupils to leave my lessons with more memories, more delicious starting points, that will take them to places and new experiences that they cannot yet imagine.”[2]

The Connections project is pure rhetoric, and a generative technique (borrowed from creative writing methods) is used to kickstart pupils’ thinking.  Two often quite distinct ideas are clashed together by each pupil, to produce a striking and original piece of creative work.  They may also choose to complete the work in almost any (legitimate) format, not only essays.  Work ranges from the conventional to the bizarrely intriguing.  Pupils have produced essays on football + violence, as well as on connections between the collapse of Lehman Brothers + the end of the Belgian Empire; sculptures on money + politics, presentation speeches that investigate the meaning of morality by linking war + suicide; short films on murder + music, mixed media on Elvis + French poetry, piano compositions on nostalgia + friendship, canvases on fashion + fine art, a mock detective file on Shakespearian conspiracies, and even a Latinate Chinese dictionary formed from the idea of an alternative history of two continents.  They are crowning pieces of work for their Trivium year, and the best are published online.

Again, I refer to Sayers to explain that Connections offers partly an antidote to her concern:

“Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt … but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a ‘subject’ remains a ‘subject,’ divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects,’ so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon – or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?”[3]

By clashing together two ideas and having each pupil strive for a personally creative outcome, subject boundaries are blurred and entry to a topic becomes intriguing and personal.  “Connections” projects also provide a second antidote; that is, to Third Form exams, with pupils exploring a topic of pure interest to them just before the final exam preparation season begins.

At other times in the year, other ‘mini’ challenges are also offered.  One dares them to have a letter published in one of a range of periodicals; another is a Triv Trove monthly publication of a mini-newspaper of fait divers curious facts in the news gathered by a set; another set held a false logic competition (in the spirit of Douglas Adams) and so on … suggestions are always welcome.  All of these extras are amplified by the wider cultural literacy surrounding the pupil.  Families and boarding schools are coefficients to the pupil.  E.D. Hirsch (and more recently Daisy Christodoulou),[4] raised the idea of cultural literacy at home, which applies by extension at boarding school.  We are so lucky at Oundle and similar independent schools to be able to rely on a certain amount of this in the (educated and often relatively affluent) homes of our pupils and – where boarders are concerned – on the presence of highly educated pastoral tutors surrounding our children here.  Yet they are different spaces[5] and in any event such reliance should not lead to complacency, nor sticking only to the centralised lists of knowledge that Hirsch’s ideas and a national curriculum might offer. We should take any and every chance to encourage greater cultural “soak” in the home and house, both within and without those subject boundaries.

Hence the annual Triv Quiz, the fiendishly difficult, cryptically-worded obscure knowledge quiz, written by the Trivium staff, lasting a whole week and led by an elected house “Oracle”, where the involvement of each house team’s families and relatives are often the key to success in ferreting out knowledge and showing pupils where to find things.  Even the basic fact of entering as a house, rather than as an academic set, is useful in suffusing another area of school life with esoteric enquiry. Also, Connections, as mentioned, can be a time when non-Triv teachers are often identified and asked – dragooned? – by Trivium pupils to help with a personal project. And, it seems with Quadrivium in the Lower Sixth, too, no small number of parents are looking curiously over their children’s shoulders at what fresh esoterica has been brought home that day outside the curricular bounds. All this means that pupils encounter both vertical (authoritative / teacher-led) and horizontal (populist / pupil-originating) transmissions of knowledge. We haven’t by any means perfected this system yet. There is great promise in the programme and the sails will need serious trimming in the years ahead.

In the coming years, to match the small prizes given each term, I hope to develop a prestigious annual Trivium Prize to recognise the purest aspect of oratory and rhetoric.  This will be judged not on a speech or formal debating, which competitions already exist aplenty at Oundle, but a session of questioning; a viva voce:[6] a pupil engaging a teacher with existing subject knowledge, in a kind of mini-Oxbridge interview pitched at Third Form level.  The Prize would be for the widest-ranging learnt ideas (grammar), the most acute reasoning (logic) and most elegant cadence (all coming together in rhetoric).  It may effectively take the form of senior and junior Masterminds – the central chair – but with a discursive spin rather than facts only: a soutenance.  This makes for a motivating form of examination with personal interest as its purpose, not an external qualification.  It also reflects the more general engagement of each Trivium set with the essential traditions of rhetoric, but also with the recent “rhetorical” tools of social media, where useful.[7]


Footnotes

[1] The baby comparison may yet be apt – I hope to carry out research at some point in collaboration with other schools, as to the extent of the effect of this sort of education on the development of character: a fusion of the academic and the pastoral.  The criteria for success on the character front may be aligned with those of attachment theory, and what constitutes an integral adult. Duckworth’s grit concept may also be instructive: Duckworth, A., Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermilion, 2016.

[2] See: Fordham, M., On curiosity, posted at https://clioetcetera.com/2017/01/19/on-curiosity/, accessed 12 February 2017.

[3] Sayers, 1947.

[4] See/hear: Abrams, F., The School of Hard Facts, BBC Radio 4 interview with Hirsch, posted at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ng4h5 and accessed on 12 February, 2017, and Christodoulou, D., Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[5] One might look to a feminist critique here as instructive: the male space of school and its emphasis on growing away from parents as an individual; against the feminine, domestic sphere of stability and stasis.  Camus, again, offers a literary example, quoted elsewhere, about the departure of his teacher, leaving him at home with his mother and grandmother: see Camus p. 193 (Hapgood translation pp. 136–7).

[6] This sort of soutenance might satisfy Sayers: “The final synthesis of the Trivium – the presentation and public defence of the thesis – should be restored in some form; perhaps as a kind of ‘leaving examination’ during the last term at school.” – Sayers, 1947.

[7] Interestingly, and talking of developing the concept, there are places where extension-type courses deliver all or most humanities in the Lower Years – for example, Division at Winchester.  One original avenue for Trivium’s development was along these lines, but while there is overlap, it is not the function of our course.

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