TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 10: Metaphors, adolescent striving and spiritual development


Sestos to Ab­ydos … or not.

Hero’s light the examiner lit, so youngsters all could see

Where to go and what to know, for each GCSE.

Pupils bright and dim, they sit – and score A, B or C,

Then Reality! Oh … out the lamp goes: Leanders, all at sea.[1]

Trivium encourages independence.  If all knowledge is directed toward exams only, without strong, unexamined elements, what happens to an intellect when, after schooldays, the lamplight goal of passing an exam is no longer there?  Adolescents are looking for something to understand, to love, to enjoy and to define themselves; that disappointment may soon appear, by our hands, is unconscionable.

“Silvia, rimembri ancora / Quel tempo della tua vita mortale, / Quando beltà splendea / Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi, / E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare/ Di gioventù salivi? / … Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme …”[2]

Yet instead of these personal, joyful, long-term, open-ended notions that arise on the threshold of youth, we mainly offer fixed and artificial destinations of adult making to work towards, in the form of exam success.  With that comes the deflating idea that on reaching those destinations, rather than those of a pupil’s choosing, the necessaries of education will have been completed. Real life does not work like that, and nor should the development of the self that is bound up in the educational process.  As Mike Grenier aptly puts it,[3] it is soul-destroying for a teacher to have to tell the excited intellect of a pupil that he has to rein it in, in order to satisfy a reductive mark scheme.  It makes a teacher feel small to encounter such a young and capable mind emerging and hoping for stimulation, only to feel obliged to send it away unnourished.

This reminds me of two passages: first (as a role reversal), of Connolly’s small boy who teases the elephant, only to see it get up with a noble bewilderment, give him one look and shamble away.[4]  Second, of Camus’ teacher, Monsieur Bernard, and the concept of nourishment by advice, trust in the teacher and the sheer, turbulent stretch of knowledge needed to satisfy the adolescent appetite, beyond exam rubrics:

 “Voilà des croissants, dit M. Bernard … mais la pâte mâchée et indigeste passait difficilement leur gorge. … ils lui obéiraient, à lui qui savait tout et auprès de qui la vie était sans obstacles, il suffisait de se laisser guider par lui.”[5]

« [Les pages] … remplies à ras bord de mots et de phrases, comme ces énormes plats rustiques où l’on peut manger beaucoup et longtemps sans jamais les épuiser et qui seuls peuvent apaiser certains énormes appétits. … Il importait peu … pourvu qu’il fût clairement écrit et plein de vie violente; ces livres-là, et eux seuls, leur donnaient leur pâté de rêves … »[6]

The other side of that destination coin is that, once identified, the exam goal becomes all-consuming, particularly for the bright pupil who wants to direct his or her energy aright.  The exam eats you up; pressure engages; mental health fails.  Trivium and Quadrivium hope to address some of the root causes of this, rather than the symptoms on which some forms of counselling focus.  It should be that you can stop some of the problems of exam pressure from happening in the first place, by relieving the stress of over-examination in one area, while still maintaining progress.  The progress can simply become qualitatively, rather than quantitively, measurable.  This relies on timetable space being allocated appropriately, otherwise the unexamined course adds to the burden instead of lightening it.  Nonetheless, by its nature and liberty, the unexamined should be aligned to deeper interests and personal development and therefore not a great source of stress in its own right.  I have written elsewhere about the notion of creating times and spaces to consider moral and mental questions.  There is a pastoral element to this, too: Trivium teachers and pastoral tutors overlap in their task of encouraging reflection and consideration of ethical conduct in school and the boarding house.  Time carved out for this purpose, since otherwise scarce, is therefore of benefit to pupils’ mental health.[7]

There are no signal points on the opposing shore; you have to imagine your own, and you need tools and soundness of mind, body and spirit to get there.  On leaving school, a child is still in the midst of their journey toward fulfilment, individuality and personality, but they suddenly find that they have been following someone else’s – everyone else’s – fixed goals instead of their own open ones.[8]  They’re now left to find their way in the world, with new ideas to broach, but have no means of navigating the waters.  Trivium seeks to give them the tools and methods to strengthen their minds to freestyle their way through whatever unexamined topic of study they choose, alongside the mass-observed, measurable end-points of study provided by the examined curriculum.

Spiritual fulfilment is similar to this idea of a journey without a guaranteed, markable end.  The esoterica and unexamined nature of Oundle’s Trivium may help in developing an understanding of the notion of open-ended knowledge and experience in the spiritual and divine sphere, not just the academic one.  For example, Rowan Williams writes that

“… the flat assertion that the reality of God is something we cannot ‘know’ damagingly ignores just the complexities of what knowledge may mean – the process we are seeking to characterize is one in which we are brought to a point where to go on speaking at all requires a shift of expectation, away from the assumption that there will be a point of descriptive closure, some expression or formulation that is definitively adequate to what is in view. … What is lacking is not more evidence, more facts, more knowledge in the usual sense of the word. Stanley Cavell’s celebrated essay on Shakespeare’s Othello ends with the observation that Othello’s problem in the play was not that he lacked knowledge but that ‘he could not yield to what he knew.’ … When we acknowledge the impulse to continue when ‘ordinary’ description is done with, we are … accepting that what confronts us is still ‘interrogating’ us …”[9]

In the context of Trivium, we raise the possibility of an open-ended conversation and debate, without proposing the notion of a guaranteed (and hence measurable) answer or conclusion for pupils to reach, which is what exams and their mark schemes would lead an examined-only pupil to conclude.  In systemically suggesting and experiencing that the whole process of knowing may be open-ended – that the tick of a “correct answer” may never be available – Trivium pupils are able to be yield to spiritual discovery, where such concepts are essential, alongside their academic discovery.  Even those who decline the mysteries will see the benefit of being capable of thinking in such a way.


[1] WDG, with apologies to the ancient myth of Hero and Leander.

[2] “Silvia, do you remember then / That time of your life / When beauty glistened / In your laughing and darting eyes, / And you, joyful and pensive, climbed over / The threshold of your youth? / … When I recall to myself how grand those hopes …” Leopardi, G., How can the dead remember? In translation by Tsung, D., as quoted at, accessed February 15, 2017.

[3] Grenier, M., Slow Education, the Trivium and Eton College. Ed. Robinson, Martin. Trivium in Practice (Trivium II).  London: Crown House, 2016.

[4] Connolly, p. 35.

[5] Camus, p. 192; emphasis added; Hapgood’s translation at p. 135: “’Here are some croissants,’ said M. Bernard … but the heavy dough once chewed was difficult to swallow. … they would obey him, with him there were no obstacles in life, it was enough to let themselves be guided by him.”

[6] Camus, p. 270; emphasis added; Hapgood’s translation p. 193: “[pages] … filled to the brims with words and sentences, like those enormous rustic dishes you can eat at long and heartily without ever emptying them, and are all that can satisfy some gigantic appetites. … It mattered little … as long as the writing was clear and it was full of violent activity; those books, and those alone, would feed their dreams …”

[7] Luxmoore, N. Essential Listening Skills for Busy School Staff. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2015, pp. 15–21 and 67–68.

[8] Abbott, pp. 238–9.

[9] Williams, R., The Edge of Words. God and the Habits of Language.  London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 9.


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