TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 9: Subject Knowledge and “the best that has been thought and said”


Much of the following is closely derived by analogy with, or summary of, the arguments laid out in a cogent analysis of Western historiography.[1]

Trivium stands against cultural relativism.  “Culture”, “civilisation”, “excellence” and “élitism” are clean words here at Oundle, within a Trivium course that acts as a scholars’ colloquium for all pupils.[2]  Philosopher Allan Bloom wrote back in 1987[3] that there was one thing of which a professor could be certain: that almost every modern university student claims to believe that truth is relative.  Their goal would be not to correct their mistakes and then be right, but never to think that they could be objectively right at all.  Trivium, like Bloom, rejects such an approach, so it is useful to see how that approach has become prevalent elsewhere in academia.

It partly happened through changes in the meaning of the terms “culture” and “civilisation”.[4] The better sense of the former was Matthew Arnold’s in his Culture and Anarchy,[5] where it meant “the best that has been thought and said”, to be critically appreciated by an educated élite.  The concept of “civilization” arose in the Enlightenment, identifying societies that were based on reason (which includes faith discourse), open to new ideas and the wider world for inspiration. Then entered the 1960s and post-Vietnam 1970s, when a militant egalitarianism made “excellence” and “élitism” dirty words.  Up rose the belief, perhaps from anthropology, that all “cultures” were equal and that “civilisation” was an outdated and incorrect term.  So much for Kenneth Clark.[6]  Cultural practices that most Westerners know to be wrong – cannibalism, human sacrifice, female genital mutilation – now had to be respected for fear of offending or demeaning the culture in question. The obvious trouble there is that if all “cultures” and “civilisations” are relative, then we have moral nihilism: no universal, objective, moral principles to stand in judgment over any particular culture. That is a philosophy of anything goes, no matter how barbaric.  Well, I think I know nonsense when I see it.

When seen in the context of science, such a conclusion (that truth is relative) is all the more ridiculous.  In the areas of enquiry where they can be correctly applied, the scientific methods developed in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries, put simply, work.  Despite this, French philosopher Foucault argued in the 20th century that all knowledge was specific to one culture and purely political – in other words, knowledge was a means of oppressive Western power.  What utter tosh.  If taken seriously, science and Western knowledge generally (based on discursive methods like the Trivium) could no longer be considered universal methods for discovering truth.  Any set of beliefs could claim to produce “truths” of their own, reducing Western science and enquiry to one equal method among many, despite its comparatively astonishing record of success. Rejection of such rubbish is why Science-minded pupils at Oundle can be just as interested in the Trivium and Quadrivium curricula as the humanities and arts students are.  Subject or discipline distinctions aside – of which some are at any rate arbitrary – the philosophy of truth-seeking behind them is universal, and universally good.  That is an unashamed value judgment that rejects relativism and is the core of Trivium’s goal, whether it is ultimately capable of achieving it or not.

This is not ethnocentric, either: quite the opposite. In recent decades, some philosophers have tried to ground science in different assumptions, to develop concepts of, for example, “African chemistry” or “Islamic science”.  Yet this is hardly different from the historical relativism of calling Einstein’s work “Jewish physics,” or Lysenko’s claim to have created a non-bourgeois “proletarian” science.  Restrain any laughter, for in both cases the effects were horrific.  The latter led to the crop failures in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, and contributed to the Chinese famine of 1958–62, the worst in history with over 30 million deaths.  The truth is that the Western scientific method, and methods of intellectual enquiry such as the Trivium, being based on discursive enquiry and the testing of received ideas, are universally successful methods:

“Western science makes genuine discoveries. Western knowledge works, and none of the others do with remotely the same effectiveness.”[7]

This is not ethnocentric, let alone racist, as the knee-jerk reaction might have it.  It endorses a style of knowledge and method, not an ethnic group. These methods – scientific and intellectual – may have emerged through the Western intellectual tradition and social context, but they are clearly accessible to people of any background. Just as paper money suits the whole world not just its Chinese inventors, and algebra is more universally wielded than solely in its geographically Arabic origins, Western science and intellectual methods of enquiry belong to the whole of humanity.  From this, as a pupil, you also have to accept that, once in possession of the flame of enquiry that your teacher passes you, it will be your job to pass it on and widely.  Hence the importance of rhetorical skills training to Trivium, as the intellectual summit of the discursive process, enabling both summary and transfer of knowledge.

To conclude with hope: after the relativist depths of the 1960s and 70s, there came a glimmer of clarity from an unlikely source.  Straight after the terrorist assaults of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush called them “an attack on civilization.” This instinctive response was – distinguo – at least one positive cultural outcome of those terrible events and controversial presidency.  Anyone with at least half a brain could then see what was at stake, and it still is.  Trivium is civilising in this Enlightenment sense and cultural in Arnold’s sense (rather than civilised in some etiquette sense or culture-based in any relativist sense).  It allows modern pupils to see the difference between open societies with universal principles and closed communities with relativist, tribal values. If it were otherwise, these pupil heirs of Western civilization would be unable and unwilling to defend it.  That is why Trivium, by perpetuating not only the substance, but also the very notions, of culture and civilisation – the best and most effective that has been thought and said and done – which permeate all other subjects, is central to the Oundelian education.

Practically speaking, aside from the loftier aims, all this makes for more informed dinner party guests, less sheep-like, more global contributors and, frankly, better informed voters:

“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today [1947], when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?”[8]

In this putative age of post-truth, we would call the phenomenon Sayers identifies, “false news”.  If that is what it is, of course: as Sayers’ own age raised exactly the same questions, 70 years ago in 1947, then perhaps this is no era or phenomenon at all, but simply a continuation of how things have always been. Again, like teenagers with a “new” slang word that is actually a revival,[9] we believe selfishly that our own age is exceptional and original, without realising that every generation encounters the same issues and (perhaps wisely) revives the same solutions in disguise.  Hence the importance of passing on that crucial constancy of knowledge and facts, along with the realisation that we should in every area pass on a whole debate, and the means to have it, rather than fixed ideas, political shibboleths or the arrogant and supposed “conclusions” of our age to discussions that are inherently eternal (which claims to conclusion lead to such risible notions as the end of history).


[1] Windschuttle, K., The cultural war on Western civilization, New Criterion, January 2002, also posted at:, accessed 10 February, 2017.

[2] I’ve wondered whether children actually all want to learn, or whether that is just a schoolteacher’s view, since teachers were often the brighter pupils in the class and will often have enjoyed learning and school.  Perhaps not all children do, but they do all want to find out who they are – hence why the Oundle Trivium is “colloquium for all”, in Benjamin Evans’ phrase, not just for the scholars.

[3] Bloom, A., The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

[4] Also see the use of this word by Abbott, p. xvii.

[5] Arnold, M., Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932 [1869].

[6] Clark, K., Civilisation: A Personal View. London: Harper & Row, 1969.

[7] Windschuttle, 2002.

[8] Sayers, 1947.

[9] Often from the creative 1920s, 30s and 40s, unsurprisingly: “sozzled”, for drunkenness and “gasper” for smoker, are especially evocative of the vices, for example.  For a spiffing list of such revivals, see: Lang, N., 59 Quick Slang Phrases from the 1920s We Should Start Using Again, posted at, accessed 16 February, 2017.


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