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).

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Part 4: Logic & Content


We need to point them in the right direction. Let’s tell them to look in the dark corners – if the truth were easy to find, you’d have found it in the light, staring you in the face, laid out neatly on the coffee table.  Look in the places others haven’t looked; in the obscure corner, the esoteric fact, the exotic idea. Things are always found there, in the last place everyone looks; indeed, once found, why would you keep looking?  Except that Trivium pupils don’t stop looking; they are trained to know that it is possible that there be more than one kind of fact or truth that can be brought to bear on a subject, and that the search for it is lifelong, incomplete and yet pleasurable and worth it, leading to individual fulfilment and mental development, not to mention spiritual growth. Annuit cœptis and all that.

The process can, though fulfilling, also involve angst and pain when crossing the threshold, and teachers can be witness and cause in equal measure – a privilege and a burden.  Albert Camus related his own childhood, his teacher and these pains of growth in vivid terms in this extract:

« dans la pauvre salle à manger maintenant pleine de femmes … il se tenait contre le flanc de son maître … collé contre la tiédeur chaleureuse de ce corps solide … Il partait et Jacques restait seul, perdu au milieu de ces femmes … une immense peine d’enfant lui tordait le cœur … être jeté dans un monde inconnu, qui n’était plus le sien, où il ne pouvait croire que les maîtres fussent plus savants que celui-là dont le cœur savait tout, et il devrait désormais apprendre, comprendre sans aide, devenir un homme … grandir et s’élever seul enfin, au prix le plus cher. »[1]

The next part – Logic (or Dialectic) – is picking apart those received ideas; presenting the opposing view.  In this way, Trivium is often based on discussion, on debate – the second moniker in its signature alongside the esoterica. Objectively, a statement that one encounters is true, false or a bit of both. [2] You either agree with it as true – “Concedo” – or disagree with it as untrue – “Nego” – or agree with what is true while disagreeing with an untrue element – “Distinguo”.  Teachers may or may not use the formal terms, but they oblige engagement with an idea and the subsequent requirement to prove it is false, rather than merely assert falsehood. The notion of a “safe space” would be inimical to a Trivium lesson (without encouraging deliberate offence – obviously), since controversial subjects often provide the most intriguing details with which a young mind can grapple.  Some pupils – dare I say some university students – detest that idea of having to grapple with the difficult, so their untrained response is retreat, not intelligent, compassionate confrontation.[3]  This may relate to a wish never to cross the painful, disenchanting threshold of life and knowledge identified above, preferring to remain cosseted in the comfortable views of one’s present state.  Trivium – gently – works to overcome any such arrested development.[4]

The satirical-fictional bartender Mr Martin J. Dooley[5] once observed that “it doesn’t matter what you teach a boy, as long as he hates it.”  However amusingly rough and seemingly 19th-Century a pedagogical attitude that may be, its kernel holds true: if a pupil finds something easy or unchallenging, then there’s probably little point in teaching it.  Unless the banal or received knowledge in question is a useful stepping stone to something more engaging, or if the pupil is still very young and responds well to grammar that is spoonfed – and even then … but I recognise some limits to this, of course.

One philosophical nuance to address here, en route.  In writing of a struggling, grappling, wilful individual, there is the risk of suggesting that I am idealising some sort of Nietzschean Pupil, overly individualised and self-obsessed.  Sorry to disappoint the Nietzsche fans, but no übermensch student here: too much danger, as I have said elsewhere, of giving rise to nihilism and relative truths, which are the opposite of that to which Trivium pupils should aspire, whatever the philosopher’s intention as to the creation of values and meaning.  Instead of being “overly” individual, Trivium requires social and critical engagement with others, through a process of careful learning and considerate disputation.  It also requires a recognition of the place of fellow human beings during the assertion of one’s own personality.  Individual fulfilment is therefore a joint venture with other pupils, and as there is no stated ideal held up to pupils as model, it is hardly the same thing as narcissistic individualism.  Alasdair MacIntyre’s philosophical commentary, though not expressly intended for the educational setting, is instructive here:

“To cut oneself off from shared activity in which one has initially to learn obediently as an apprentice learns, to isolate oneself from the communities which find their point and purpose in such activities, will be to debar oneself from finding any good outside of oneself.  It will be to condemn oneself to that moral solipsism which constitutes Nietzschean greatness. … the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some version or other and the Aristotelian tradition in some version or other.”[6]

Also important is his idea of space creation.  Trivium creates another “space” or set of spaces to explore morality and civility, for each individual pupil.  The class set, the house, the tutor, the family, through various Trivium initiatives … in the same way as Newman’s “ark” to take Christianity forward in the Church, it is hoped that a Trivium approach may, at Oundle, restore the weak and rocking national boat of pupil discourse on these matters, boxed as it is into channels by pressures from within and without the School, with little time otherwise for calm and reflection.  It is a cry of “Sanctuary!” and has many rooms.  Carving out timetable space, and other spaces through creating events that cut across subject, class and house lines, builds upon the thriving work of the School in other areas to socialise pupils in the process of building their individuality and moral frameworks.

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontier; they have already been governing us for quite some time. [MacIntyre was writing in the early 1980s]  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”[7]


[1] Camus, p. 193; Hapgood’s translation, pp. 136–7 : … in the poor dining room full now of women … he stayed close to his teacher’s side … pressing against the hearty warmth of that solid body … He went out, and Jacques was left alone, lost among the women … a child’s immense anguish wrung his heart … to be hurtled into a strange world, one no longer his, where he could not believe the teachers were more learned than the one whose heart was all-knowing, and from now on he would have to learn, to understand without help, and become a man … to grow up and bring himself up alone, and it would be at the highest cost.”  Also see the work of Haroon Shirwani at Eton, on Victorian conceptions in this area during the public school reforms, as well as a feminist critique of these notions. He points particularly to Gathorne-Hardy, J., The public school phenomenon, 597–1977 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977), pp. 469–75 and Tosh, J., A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 117–18.

[2] See: Jetchick, S., Concedo, Nego, Distinguo, posted at, accessed on 15 February 2017.

[3] This is one of those hot sujets du jour in the national press – see, for example, Aaronovitch, D., Being offended is often the best medicine, The Times of London, 15 February, 2017:

[4] A similar discussion about counterproductive self-regard might be broached with pupils about the “I have rights” phenomenon, i.e. those who demand others act for them to secure a right, without recognising any matching responsibility to act well themselves.  Again, this is nothing new or recent: Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was careful to state this 110 years ago in his guide for teenagers, and relates it directly to the need for truth: “And don’t imagine that you have any rights in this world except those that you earn for yourself.  You have the right to be believed, if you earn it by always telling the truth, and you have the right to go to prison if you earn it by thieving.  There are lots of men who go about howling about their rights who have never done anything to earn any rights.  Do your duty first, and you will get your rights afterwards.” Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys, p. 163.

[5] Or possibly his parish priest, according to Brogan, D., Table Talk: University follies of 1969, in the Spectator of 10 January, 1969, archived at, accessed 16 January 2017.  I can’t find any consistent citation in any of the early 20th-Century Dooley collections for this quotation, and there seem to be minor variants that go unchecked in popular circulation, suggesting paraphrase and/or uncertainty of a single definitive source. One colleague of mine even ascribed it, or at least heard it repeated by, a former Headmaster of Westminster School.

[6] MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (3rd edition), London: Duckworth, 2007 [1981], p. 258.

[7] Ibid., p. 263

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 3: Grammar & Method


Trivium at Oundle relies on two foundations: esoterica (anything interesting that is part of “the best that has been thought and said”) and directed debate; the former often providing fodder for the latter, but interesting in its own right. The discursive style for the latter advocates the first three of the mediæval liberal arts: Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric.  This Mediæval influence carries no stain of being laudator temporis acti, nor some hipsterish fleet of retrophiles, nor in any pejorative sense being reactionary to the modern (indeed blended learning, for example, has been seen as highly compatible with Trivium).  Trivium is an adaptation; it sits at the core of a curriculum informing all other subjects, and does not seek to destroy those divisions so much as provide links, tools and appreciation between them.  The method does not revere the worst of ancient schoolrooms – Strachey’s “anarchy tempered by despotism” in some “grim ‘Long Chamber’”[1].  The method is timeless and therefore readily updated, to suit contemporary classrooms:

“What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. … Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does ‘go back’ mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. ‘Cannot’ – does this mean that our behaviour is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if ‘the Middle Ages’ is … simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not ‘go back’ to it – with modifications – as we have already ‘gone back’ with modifications, to … the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the ‘modernized’ versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.”[2]

The first step is therefore Grammar, but not as we know it. Not where nouns go in (Latin) sentences, but the Grammar of ideas:[3] the basic vocabulary, notions, building blocks, received wisdom, of any subject.  There’s quite a bit of spoonfeeding at this point, or even a Gradgrindian outlay of facts.[4] This is not really the point, but rather serves as tasty fodder for the method, which will develop in the pupil the right habits and arts.  I offer three seminal extracts to frame the whole purpose. First, William Cory, the famous Eton master, put it like this:

“In childhood you learn to read, to write, to cypher, to speak French perhaps [… Then] you go to school […] and for the next four or five years you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism.  […] A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions.  But you go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness.  Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge. … You fail again and again, but you are the humbler for failing.  You improve step by step; and the further you go, the more infinite is the world of thought revealed to you. … Self-complacency is gently trodden down; self-reliance is slowly lifted up.”[5]

Cory’s 1861 piece can be read as a companion piece to the slightly earlier work of Newman in 1852, on the Idea of a University.  Newman’s famous passage below describes what might be seen as the result of such excellent and careful schooling – the definition of a gentleman.  Nowadays, this applies equally to female pupils as to male and I quote two edited, lengthy extracts:

“It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids … all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. … [H]e guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. … He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. … If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.  If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity.  He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.”[6]

The gentlemanly notion of avoiding clashes of opinion might at first glance seem contrary to our practice of Trivium, where controversy is encouraged.  Yet there is no real conflict here: the point is to train up a young mind to wrestle with such things in adolescence, so that when the relative calm of adulthood arrives, the naturally argumentative teenage tendency has already been satisfied in constructive manner and led on to the finer, more instinctive and more clinical consideration of any issue which is the apotheosis of the Trivium method.  Without being unkind to them, we all know the tiresome chippiness of some adult friend or other who takes every chance to re-litigate their teenage arguments, or acts as a student politician might, because they haven’t quite grown up yet.  We wish on them no less passion, but a milder temper and less firey consideration of the issue.  This is the cool “shadow of lost knowledge” of which Cory speaks, well-earned after the blazing hot sun of adolescent discussion.  It is the smooth surface of the monolith once the messy scaffolding has been taken down.  Newman also wrote of a university education based on liberal arts principles that lead to this character:

“It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.  It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.  It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.  It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.  He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way … The art which tends to make a man all this, is in the object which it pursues as useful as the art of wealth or the art of health, though it is less susceptible of method, and less tangible, less certain, less complete in its result.”[7]

Those three seminal extracts are fairly close to an educational philosophy of method and desired outcome for the Oundle Trivium.  How then do we teach pupils so that they arrive at that point in the future?  Strachey (for once without mockery) quotes Arnold’s vision: “… it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge which I have to teach.”[8] Arnold’s emphasis on languages is evocative of Trivium’s own preference for linguistic terms – grammar and rhetoric chief among them.  In the modern form, it is discursive development that improves mental agility, both because it increases vocabulary and therefore the rate of compression of thought an individual is capable of having, but also because it is social in putting conversation at its core.[9] No doubt a neuroscientist could give a fuller and more accurate account of how language develops thought, and how goodness and precision in one engenders the same in the other.  For now, writer Cyril Connolly will have to do:

“For what he hated was vulgarity … of writing as much as vulgarity of the heart. ’To write simply,’ explains Maugham, ‘is as difficult as to be good.’ Perhaps one requires the other.”[10]

C J Vaughan also offers a similar view to the other reformers:

“[t]he real object of education … is rather to form than to inform the mind; not so much to communicate what I may call pieces of knowledge, as to habituate to patience and accuracy and diligence in learning, with a view to the application of powers thus gained to future use … Our business is not so much how to teach as to show how to learn; and to this end habits of thoroughness and exactness are results far more important than any extent of present attainment in the way of [curricular subjects].  The time for attainment is not yet. Our business is to sow; the harvest is afterwards.”[11]

For one of his farewell services as Headmaster at Harrow Chapel, Vaughan took as his sermon text, 2 Timothy 3.14: “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned.”  He emphasised the five lessons the school had offered:

“1. First among these … I will place the value of time … 2. The forming a right estimate of yourselves … 3. The necessity and the power of adapting yourselves to a variety of persons and circumstances … 4. The meaning of a social as opposed to a selfish life[12] … that is the obligation to act for others and for the body, as well as for themselves … 5. The great lesson of the consequences of actions …”[13]

More on each of these as we progress, as Trivium’s social and pastoral purpose is in some way akin to many of the great Victorian reformers’ goals – Cory, Arnold, Vaughan and Sanderson are the better-known names – who wished to achieve these goals through Christian teaching. For Dean Stanley, reflecting on Arnold several decades after the latter’s death, religion “… consists in that which makes us wiser and better, more truthful, more loving, more tender, more considerate, more pure.”  The same – religious or secular – goes for Trivium teaching.  Just as “Triv” resurrects and adapts an ancient method to a modern purpose, Dr Arnold “… made us understand that much that we call ancient was really modern, much that we call modern was really ancient.”  I agree with Sayers, then,[14] that Trivium’s timeless methods are therefore not so much a turning back of the clock to some putative mediæval ideal, as a refusal to see a good technique as fixed in a single time period, being instead prepared to adapt it to another as a good inheritance.  The desired ends, described by Cory and Newman and the others, remain unchanging.

So how do these high ideals translate to everyday classroom experience, and the planning of an extension course?  An experienced colleague of mine begins each year of his Trivium course with a lesson explaining that no pupil is entitled to his or her own opinion – shock, horror! – until he or she has the knowledge to back it up, or at least a non-received power of intuition about a subject and a willingness to subject that intuition to scrutiny.  Hobby horses abound in nurseries, and as teachers we should lift young minds off them, and onto firmer, maturer ground.

For fuller explanation, I offer here a loose adaptation of some of the themes in a piece on moral relativism by Roger Kimball of the New Criterion.[15]  There seems to be a contemporary entitlement to holding an opinion, whether defensible or not: a deformed instance of the well-meaning obligation that we each ‘respect’ everyone else instead of merely tolerate them. Unchecked, here we risk approaching the nihilistic and morally void, Nietzschean vision that “[t]here are no facts, only interpretations.” Rather than tolerate the metastasis of such a notion into other areas of life and learning, I would prefer Trivium teachers (gently) to correct a pupil for holding a factually unsustainable opinion, in the same way as you might correct a young child for lying.  Frankly, both amount to dishonesty, which prompts the moral obligation of the teacher:

“Accustom your children constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.“[16]

The correction is not punishment, however, so much as guiding.  An Oundle Trivium teacher acts as an intellectual Lonely Planet Guide, but with more arguments, fewer tickbox ‘must see’ lists[17] and greater emphasis on regular coffee stops for amiably heated discussion.  To emphasise that this is not some priggish undertaking, but a firmly academic sort of ethical project, let me propose another (slightly facetious) conception of a Trivium teacher, that of the poet Hesiod’s daimon.  They tend to the individual’s personal development of a conception of right and wrong, without either imposing an external one, nor cutting the individual human off from the healthy influence of other humans, and deities in which that human may believe.  Daimons are:

“… spirits of the Golden Age, who act as guardians to mortals [read: pupils …].  Not tedious manifestations of the moral conscience, like Guardian Angels, always pulling for Sunday-school rightness and goodiness [sic].  No, manifestations of the artistic conscience, who supply you with the extra energy when it is needed, and tip you off when things aren’t going as they should.  Not wedded to … what is right, but to what is your destiny.  Your joker in the pack.  Your Top Trump that subdues all others!”[18]

Quite a task!  Wouldn’t it be interesting to formalise the fact that Trivium aims for this blending of the objective and subjective truth in pupils?  That their quest is to find what is right and true, but by their own means?  An objective truth, subjectively true for all pupils?  Perhaps we might ask pupils to swear an oath at the start of each Trivium lesson, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (Reflexive American reference to deity optional as to taste.)  It would lend clarity to the ultimate goal of the programme.

Of course they can’t swear such a thing, because they don’t know the truth(s) of what they encounter – yet (note the Growth Mindset adverb) – they have to seek them out.  Importantly, they are not entitled to any opinion on what the truth might be unless they can back it up, so searching for truth becomes an ally in their quest to assert individuality:[19] their own truth is going to be the best, the most nuanced of their social group.

They are ultimately competing against themselves for their own, most personalised form of épanouissement, and yet this search has a social function, too. How to persuade their peers of their now-thought-out view? By their version being most able to withstand scrutiny – and honestly withstand, not petulantly so – and by their being able to express it in the clearest terms.  In other words, by process of acquiring the grammar of an idea, subjecting it to scrutinous logic, and presenting it in fine rhetoric, they will have become individuals and know that the process to achieve this all the more is through an enjoyable, stimulating, social search for personal truth.  That is the method.  What about the content: where will they look?  In what parts of knowledge?


[1] Strachey, p. 166.

[2] Sayers, 1947.

[3] See, generally: Robinson, M., Trivium 21c: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past. London: Crown House, 2013.

[4] Dickens, p. 355 and elsewhere.

[5] Cory, pp. 6–8. A shorter variant of this text, adapted by George Lyttleton in writing to Rupert Hart-Davis, which is crisper and has minor differences from the original, is quoted on the Eton College website here:, which version has already been helpfully aired by both Grenier, M., an Eton Housemaster and founder of the Slow Education movement, and Robinson, M., the London educational consultant and writer of Trivium 21C.  I have chosen instead to quote this slightly longer extract from the original, as it includes Cory’s conclusions about self-knowledge, relevant to Oundle’s Trivium project.

[6] Newman, J. H., The Idea of a University. London: Longmans, Green & Co.: 1852.  Extract on gentlemen transcribed at, accessed 17 February 2017.

[7] Newman, J. H., The Idea of a University, London: Longmans, Green & Co.: 1852.  Extract on universities from Discourse VII scanned at, accessed 17 February 2017.

[8] Strachey, p. 171

[9] See Abbott, pp. 164–5 on the Language for Life report of the 1970s.

[10] Connolly, C., Enemies of Promise. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1979 [1938], p. 47

[11] As quoted in Park, T., “Nolo Episcopari”: A Life of C. J. Vaughan. Berforts: St Bega, 2013, p. 163.

[12] See the Aristotle / Nietzsche commentary elsewhere, made clear by MacIntyre.

[13] Vaughan as quoted in Park, Nolo Episcopari, p. 175.

[14] Sayers, 1947.

[15] Kimball, R., The killing of History: why relativism is wrong. Published in the New Criterion, September 1996, and posted at–why-relativism-is-wrong-3484, accessed on 10 February, 2017.

[16] Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

[17] See Abbott, p. 222, on the unreality of checklists – but cf Gawande, A., The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2009, passim, for checklists’ useful purposes.

[18] Davies, pp. 17–18.

[19] See Abbott, p. 139 on allowing the (controlled) space for a child’s effort to find truth.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 2: Introduction to the Oundle Trivium


Oundle Chapel Windows, South Nave

Picture, if you will, a set of Third Formers – freshly-minted Year 9s – sitting in front of you.  Newly out of prep school, they’ve had drilled into them for the last two years that knowledge is to be acquired in order to pass a series of exams – Common Entrance, or Scholarship – despite prep schools’ best intentions and efforts.  They bear the limiting imprint of a system that divides knowledge into two categories: “necessary” and “unnecessary”, and obliges them only to learn the former.[1]  And, over the next two or three years, despite more intentions and efforts, these same pupils may once again conclude that knowledge is only for passing another series of exams, their (I)GCSEs.

This is academic poison.  It kills curiosity.  It kills enquiry.  But it is also poisonous to character and manners.  Trivium, for all pupils in the Oundle Third Form, is a dual antidote; Quadrivium, its optional Lower Sixth sibling.  The statement above requires research, on which more later, but the hypothesis is clear: a mind trained from its youth up to be curious as to itself and to humanity at large, with a broader awareness of the diverse realms of knowledge, is likely to develop into a more questing, wiser and humane soul, as well as a more individual one.  The process, like the pyramid on the American dollar-bill and like any human being, is always a work-in-progress.

I’d like to explain our attempts at Oundle to build habits that fight against the received ideas of “necessity” and help Oundelians realise that learning can be for its own sake, but also for that of character;[2] that learning, adapting and engaging can be worthy pleasures outside the examined system: and life-long ones.  This is a long game, and not yet fully substantiated by findings beyond the obvious, but I take encouragement that it stands in opposition to the short-game racket of measurable progress all too fashionable under the ironically fuliginous criteria of some (not all) of today’s inspection and examination régimes – again, despite some great intentions.  It emphatically does not stand against the notion of exams, nor against other subjects.  Quite the opposite: it recognises that an examined-only curriculum, or even a primarily-examined curriculum, is insufficient for any age[3] and must be supplemented, in decent measure, by intensive exposure to an unexamined moiety.  Ideally, of one particularly effective type, which we are developing here as the Oundle Trivium.[4]  It relates only partly to the mediæval variety and to other “Trivium” iterations, as Oundle has forged a unique path.

Trivium is, like other subjects at this age, necessarily preparatory – teaching how to think and giving a great many things about which to think, rather than expecting pupils to master or doctor subjects in their early teens. As for content, a bricks & mortar analogy seems apt: large, disparate blocks of examined knowledge need a way of being ordered if they are to cohere and form the beginnings of a nuanced world view. Trivium is its mortar, giving pupils the means to hold big ideas in place in relation to each other, stable in the reasoning around them.  Without that reasoning, pupils are condemned merely to follow custom and rubric.  Just as Albert Camus railed as a child against the custom of being given iron plates instead of the adults’ china at dinner, because the custom was not – and could not – be explained by those adults, so our Oundelians become profoundly frustrated at the lack of time given to them to reason, think and muse, instead of follow the custom of learning for the exam.  Reasoning and filter are everything :

« … sauf celles des enfants qui mangeaient dans des gamelles de fer.  (Pour des raisons d’ailleurs mystérieuses, l’insuffisance de la vaisselle peut-être ou, comme le prétendit un jour la grand-mère, pour éviter la casse, alors que ni lui ni son frère n’étaient maladroits de leurs mains.  Mais les traditions familiales n’ont souvent pas de fondement plus solide, et les ethnologues me font bien rire qui cherchent la raison de tant de rites mystérieux.  Le vrai mystère, dans beaucoup de cas, c’est qu’il n’y a pas de raison du tout.) »[5]

The end goal of all this is that pupils, in years ahead, lead more reasoned lives, in the Socratic sense of knowing oneself; more Christian ones, in Oundle’s Anglican sense; and lives with more of a sense of wonder, in the artistic or enchanting sense – rather than relying only on measurable views of the world, or the assumption of certainty.

There is an essential connection to all parts of the School here, particularly the pastoral, since reasoned or virtuous thought is all very well, but there is no guarantee of its translation into action outside the discursive setting. A pupil may well understand the theory of what is right – either academically or in his/her personal dealings – but the conversation ended, what will they actually do?  What will they say?  What will they believe?  Whom will they help?  How will they vote? (I jest.)  John Henry Newman identified this in a discussion of the danger of “achievements”.

“Now the danger of an elegant and polite education is, that it separates feeling and acting; it teaches us to think, speak, and be affected aright, without forcing us to practise what is right.”[6]

He goes on to illustrate the point that reading literature, and feeling the moral experiences contained within it, is no guarantee of that morality sticking to the reader once the book is set aside:

“The refinement which literature gives, is that of thinking, feeling, knowing, and speaking right, not of acting right; and thus, while it makes the manners amiable, and the conversation decorous and agreeable, it has no tendency to make the conduct, the practice of the man virtuous. … [Books] are dangerous, in themselves; – that is, if we allow refinement to stand in the place of hardy, rough-handed obedience.”[7]

To have any lasting effect, then, learning about “the best that has been thought and said”[8] in the classroom, or whatever space, has to be discussed, and then linked to the child’s action elsewhere in the School.  For the study of esoterica and ethical debate in Trivium lessons to have any real effect on character we need, in modern jargon, a “whole-school approach”.  Trivium lessons should take pupils from where they are, to where they are not: drawing on everyday examples from School and home life to relate the esoteric and ethical points to pupils’ lives:

“An umpire’s decision; the degree to which one may transgress the spirit of a regulation without being trapped by the letter: on such questions as these, children are born casuists, and their natural propensity only needs to be developed and trained – and especially, brought into an intelligible relationship with the events in the grown-up world. The newspapers are full of good material for such exercises: legal decisions, on the one hand, in cases where the cause at issue is not too abstruse; on the other, fallacious reasoning and muddleheaded arguments, with which the correspondence columns of certain papers one could name are abundantly stocked.”   “This is the moment when precis-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.”[9]

The inverse is the hope that other areas of the School will then feed back into the loop.  They would encourage events on the sports field, in Chapel, in house, in the concert hall and so forth, to be actively reflected on voluntarily by pupils in their Trivium lessons and tutorials. All the more grist to the mental and spiritual mill of each pupil, as part of a coherent and (in Socrates’ sense) examined experience.[10]

Let’s return now to the first line of discussion: the division of facts into necessary and unnecessary.  For the purposes of examination, of course, this is not entirely without merit.  Some facts may well be more important to know, more allusive and more foundational.  It is (deliberately) inconsistent of Conan Doyle, for example, to have created Sherlock Holmes as ignorant of the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  In literary terms it adds strange depth, since a man of that intellectual calibre – psychological analyses aside – would surely know of such a fact. Yet it does raise an educational point: why should he know about it? What purpose would that serve: and is such a utilitarian question suitable for education, or are we straying away from intellectual development and into supply-side economics instead?[11]  In educational terms, it is the grappling and struggling with experiences and ideas – any ideas – that is the essence of mental and spiritual development, rather than the bare acquisition of a particular set of facts and nothing more, Gradgrind-style.  Dickens’ fictional schoolboy Bitzer’s rote-learnt definition of a horse, as demanded by Mr Gradgrind, is a parody of the soulless acquisition of factual knowledge, without spirit or context:

“‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’  Thus (and much more) Bitzer.”  ‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’”[12]

It is that very particularity that Oundle strives against through exposure to esoterica in Trivium lessons.  Not as an opposition to exams, but as a counterweight to the attitude of excluding non-examined knowledge from consideration which exams can encourage, and which happens inadvertently: despite subject teachers’ skill and intentions.  These are, after all, the exact same teachers who teach the Oundle Trivium alongside their other subject. The prioritising of learning certain facts over others is inevitable within a systemic setup that puts all or undue weight on exams.[13]

Where that weight is distributed a little more evenly across examined and unexamined, pupils are more at liberty to prioritise not only the facts necessary to pass a test, but also those which interest them most. This, in turn, opens the door to greater satisfaction of curiosity, which flood leads on to fortune, and ultimately a more humane and universal, so also more individualised approach to life, to other people and to what can be known – rather than a merely utilitarian interest in those things.  George Orwell’s notion of individual liberty sits well with this, in the sense of the “non-official communal” activities of the English in particular, where social engagement does not detract from individual integrity, and stands apart from people being “numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’”.[14]  Hence a common curriculum of nationally-measurable standard is supplemented at Oundle with a free and unexamined curriculum of (eventually) personalised interest – “the liberty … to choose your own amusements instead of having them [all] chosen for you from above.”[15]  This individual liberty can lead on to discussion and the spread of ideas, for the benefit of each and all.

The problem is often said to lie further ahead – in university admissions, or in the job market, where qualifications are sought, and those require uniformity of standard.[16]  But can we not lead the conversation to the benefit of those areas? Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Oxford and Cambridge tutors, for example, would love to see an active mind rather than one only qualified on paper by standardised testing – an ideal candidate will be both, of course.  When employing a new professional, those hiring want original or creative thinkers – in the most effective industries, that is – rather than those who have only their GCSE or A-Level certificates. This is not to say that those exams forbid thought about what they choose not to include in the mark scheme – and some forward-thinking exam systems (the Pre-U might be one example) state their encouragement of broader thinking.  Yet the very existence of a mark scheme suggests a rubric that will prioritise some facts over others.  As soon as that is the case, knowledge seeking is restrained unless counterbalanced by unexamined initiatives.  Next, I will outline the particular kind of unexamined curriculum offered here, its method and content.


[1] Abbott, p. 55, on the dangers of over-rigid schooling restricting development at adolescence.

[2] Abbott offers a useful summary of Arnold at pp. 99-102.  A natural cross-reference is to Strachey, L., Eminent Victorians. London: Penguin, 1986 [1918].  Parts of Abbott’s book are hugely enlightening.  Another Victorian-Edwardian reformer to mention, in the context of teenagers is, of course, Lord Baden-Powell, the energetic and charismatic old Carthusian who believed in the best values of the public schools as character factories, and set about creating his Scout Movement to emulate those apects of them.  See Baden-Powell, R., Scouting for Boys. London: Pearson, 1967 [1907], passim.

[3] Rab Butler recognised (and perhaps thought discursively useful) the inadequacy of any syllabus – see Abbott p. 166.

[4] And let’s avoid here the crashing and self-regarding cliché of believing that our age is special.  Children are children and have always been worth the trouble of teaching properly, which is to say for its and their own sake, not that of whatever economic utility the current era requests.

[5] Camus, pp. 129-30.  Emphasis added.  Hapgood’s translation, p. 89: “… except those of the children, who ate from iron dishes. (The reasons for that matter were a mystery, lack of china perhaps, or, as the grandmother once stated, to save breakage, though neither he nor his brother was clumsy with his hands.  But family traditions are often no more soundly based, and ethnologists certainly make me laugh when they seek the reasons for so many mysterious rituals.  The real mystery, in many cases, is that there is no reason at all.)”

[6] Newman, J. H., Selected Sermons. Ed. Ker, Ian. The Classics of Western Spirituality.  New York: Paulist, 1994, pp. 153-4.

[7] Ibid., 153-5.

[8] M. Arnold’s conception, discussed elsewhere.

[9] Sayers, D., The Lost Tools of Learning, first published 1947, transcribed at, accessed 13 February, 2017.

[10] Examination in the sense of reflecting on certain issues, and on one’s own life: ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.

[11] Abbott, pp. xxv and 127.

[12] Dickens, C., Hard Times. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854., collected in Christmas Books and Hard Times. London: Chapman & Hall, 1804, p. 355.

[13] Weight is the apposite image, I think: see Abbott on how you don’t fatten a hog by weighing it, at p. 242.

[14] Orwell, Lion and Unicorn, pp. 15–16.

[15] Ibid., p. 16.

[16] Even William Cory, quoted elsewhere, suggested the same issue back in 1861 – in choosing courses of study, the “character of the school will be determined … by the attractive forces, first of the Universities, then, in a lower degree, of the Army [for which read any other modern profession] … and it will be the chief interest of the teachers to prepare them for College honours and emoluments [for which read A* grades or unconditional offers from Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group].” Cory, W., Eton Reform: II.  London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. Transcribed from digital archive scan of 22 November, 2011 at, accessed 16 February, 2017, pp. 9–10.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 1: The Genius of the Unexamined

Oundle School Chapel Window, South Nave.

Oundle School Chapel Window, South Nave.

After three years and a successful start, the Trivium and Quadrivium programme at Oundle is embedded and ready for the next phase.  The central questions we are now asking are: what is the value of an unexamined curriculum to pupils’ academic growth, and can it also help with the development of character?  This series of 10 posts is for those interested in Oundle’s provision, its intended educational hinterland and ways forward. Here – with apologies to Robertson Davies[1] – is how I see the terrain.

Education is enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment;[2] a process of joy and angst and revelation.  Entering Third Form can be disenchanting – back to being socially, academically and physically at the bottom of the pile.  But disenchantment leads to re-enchantment as school progresses, then university where great progress can be made.  We sow the seeds of a harvest we may not see until they leave School.  Such processes are slow and not always (quantitatively) measurable.  Measurement may even invite deceit.  However, measurement is the theology of education now,[3] and like the old theology it sometimes appears a muddle of conflicting assertions.  Conflict and muddling can be good: as Archbishop Habgood suggested, a lust for measurement and certainty may, like deceit, be a sin – in this case, an academic and pastoral one.[4]

Yet what really gripes my gut is that the current orthodoxy of performability has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid lack of images to offer to us – to the humble teaching and learning laity – for our edification and our faith in the profession.  The academic sins of over-jargoning are rife: we hear of attitudinal assessments, criterion checks, mark schemes, assessment objectives, pupil- or teacher-led approaches (as if it were binary), interim achievement objectives, rubric bands, summative evaluations … on hearing such sermons, a Trivium teacher would slam the door and shout “Sanctuary!”  Just as the old priest in his black robe in Chapel gave us things as pupils that seemed to have concrete existence – you pray to a saint and see and hear images that look and sound just right for it – the Trivium master in his black gown in the classroom will ask you to form your own opinion, and give you the delights of civilisation in the best that has been thought and said, to know and grapple and debate with, on your way to that opinion.

The new measurer-priests, the cold figures of Examiner and Inspector, one must imagine as the opposite of this, sitting in judgment on high, dressed in whitish lab-coats, giving us nothing at all except a constantly-changing jargon of stentorian edu-speak,[5] boxes to tick and newer, crueller[6] sets of numbers to assign against each pupil’s name.  Gloria in excel sheets Deo.  We are expected to trust these figures implicitly because They know what we are too dumb to comprehend – and if we don’t, a school risks suffering at Inspection.  Pupils, instead of blooming as butterflies in their natural jungle of esoteric discovery and intrigue and debate, are plucked from Eden and pinned to the crisp, white, specimen sheet, ready for numbering, categorising and observation under laboratory conditions against standardised criteria.

Below the highly competent caste of education official, a system of examined-only curricula and a fetish for measurement has created an invidious subcaste – the most overweening, pseudo-scientific, pompous priesthood that childhood has ever endured in all its recorded history.  Its lack of trust in teachers and pupils,[7] lack of love for symbol and metaphor in the esoteric, lack of true freedom for the child and, above all, its zeal for measurable outcomes and abstractions of data, will drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Trivium teacher, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart and there is ancient method in your modern metaphor.  You teach to the tangent, not the test, you love your subject and the pupils love you for it: « Avec M. Bernard, cette classe était constamment intéressante pour la simple raison qu’il aimait passionnément son métier. »[8]  Schools that follow this approach – independent and state – are akin to monasteries in the Dark Ages, kindling flames lovingly to pass on to their charges amid the encircling gloom of the cult of measurement.

“Garzoncello scherzoso, / cotesta età fiorita / è come un giorno d’allegrezza pieno, / giorno chiaro, sereno, / che precorre alla festa di tua vita. / Godi, fanciullo mio; stato soave, / stagion lieta è cotesta. / Altro dirti non vo’; ma la tua festa / ch’anco tardi a venir non ti sia grave.”[9]

Though he is unlikely to welcome the monastic comparison, Richard Dawkins, a famous Old Oundelian, noted a similar atmosphere of freedom and inspiration under Oundle’s great reforming Headmaster, F. W. Sanderson (1857–1922):

“Sanderson’s passionate desire to give the boys freedom to fulfil themselves would have thrown Health and Safety into a hissy fit, and set today’s lawyers licking their chops with anticipation. He directed that the laboratories should be left unlocked … [which disturbed] the equanimity of other masters who had less faith than the head in that providence which looks after the young’.”[10]

This extended beyond practical work and into the academic – still with Sanderson’s scientific stamp on it, which the School bears to this day:

“Sanderson’s hatred of any locked door which might stand between a boy and some worthwhile enthusiasm symbolised his whole attitude to education. A certain boy … used to steal out of the dormitory at 2.00 a.m. to read in the (unlocked, of course) library. The Headmaster caught him … roared his terrible wrath (… ‘Never punish except in anger’). ‘“And what are you reading, my boy, at this hour?” I told him of the work that had taken possession of me, work for which the daytime was all too full. … He looked over the notes I had been taking and they set his mind going. He sat down beside me … and he began to talk to me of discovery and the values of discovery, the incessant reaching out of men towards knowledge and power, the significance of this desire to know and make and what we in the school were doing in that process. We talked, he talked for nearly an hour in that still nocturnal room. It was one of the greatest, most formative hours in my life … “Go back to bed, my boy. We must find some time for you in the day for this”.’ That story brings me close to tears.”[11]

So it should.  The locked doors of today’s Oundle are similar extrinsic factors: mainly, time.  To lock idle intellectual enquiry out of a pupil’s timetable is largely down to the requirement to pass exams – not something the School could or should jettison: it becomes a question of balance.  Trivium and Quadrivium are the School’s skeleton keys to these pernicious doors, unlocking several periods and preps a week, to the pursuit of unexamined civilisation and personal musing.  Sanderson would be glad.  So would my favourite author, Albert Camus:

« Personne en vérité n’avait jamais appris à l’enfant ce qui était bien ou ce qui était mal.  …  Seuls ses instituteurs, lorsque le programme leur en laissait le temps, leur parlaient parfois de morale … »[12]


[1] Davies, R., What’s Bred in the Bone. Markham: Viking, 1985, p. 16.

[2] See the helpful Prospero analogy by Stock, P., Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse? posted 29 May, 2014, accessed 15 February, 2017.  Even more universal is Campbell’s monomyth, where a youngster moves via trials from certainty to uncertainty and back (think ancient myths but also Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc.)  In Trivium, most Third Formers arrive “enchanted” from childhood and decent prep schools, even if the disenchantment has begun at Common Entrance.

[3] With luck it may be faltering – see Abbott, J. and MacTaggart, H., Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing our Adolescents.  London: Continuum, 2010, p. 257.

[4] Habgood, J., appearing in On the Record (with Jonathan Dimbleby), BBC: c. 1989.  Habgood was the Archbishop of York.

[5] What Orwell would label “pretentious diction”. Orwell, Politics, p. 107

[6] “When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” – Shakespeare, W., Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6.  Trivium is hard and promotes struggle and initial division, but never cruelty or stress, and always with reconciliation and synthesis in mind.

[7] See Abbott, pp. 226, 238-9, for a related point on subsidiarity.  Naturally, “pure” freedom for teachers would be just as bad: some accountability and standardisation is crucial; I am making a rhetorical point that “one good custom [might] corrupt the world”.

[8] Camus, A., Le Premier Homme. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, p. 161.  Translated by Hapgood, D., The First Man. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1995, p. 112: “With M. Bernard, this class was always interesting for the simple reason that he loved his work with a passion.”

[9] “Lively boy, / your life’s flowering / is like this day of gladness, / a clear day, unclouded, / that heralds life’s festival. / Enjoy the sweet hour, my child, / this pleasant, delightful season. / I’ll say nothing more: let it not grieve you / if your holiday, like mine, is slow to arrive.” – Leopardi, G. (1798–1837) in his poem, Il sabato del villaggio (Saturday Night in the Village), Canto XXV.  Translation by A. S. Kline at, accessed 16 February, 2017.

[10] Dawkins, R., The joy of living dangerously, article posted on 6 July, 2002 at, accessed 14 February, 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Camus, Le Premier Homme, p. 101; emphasis added.  Translation by Hapgood, The First Man, p. 69: “No one had actually taught the child what was right and what was wrong.  …  Only his teachers, when the curriculum left them the time, would sometimes talk about morality …”

George Herbert and the Schoolmaster

Why uncertainty and love might be central to a teacher’s calling.


“[..] thou art fire, sacred and hallowed fire;

And I but earth and clay: should I presume

To wear thy habit, the severe attire

My slender compositions might consume.

I am both foul and brittle; much unfit

To deal in holy Writ.”


So am I.  I’m with the poet George Herbert on this one.  If God is the potter with his fire, perhaps I am raw clay to be shaped and set with flames in a kiln. Or perhaps not.  So little is certain.  As a teacher, I might wish in turn to take the raw material of a child and mould him into a young adult, and test him with “fire” – and yet such a comparison is supremely arrogant.  Here’s the trouble: I find speaking about faith very difficult to do, especially when it comes to my vocation, partly because I don’t like praying on street corners – speaking loudly about one’s religion is so very un-English – but mostly because, as Auden said of poetry, it is so easy to be utterly dishonest.  We might give people the notion that this schoolmastering is so awful or so wonderful (which is just as bad), that we end up either putting them off completely, or else we become the promoters of that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable all the time, where people want healing but don’t want to get better, or believe that true love is supposed to reside in those who are guilty or angry all the time …


What’s more, I am, as the poet suggests, unfit to deal in holy Writ: bible readings are often quoted to young people to encourage them to “follow their calling”.  But, not being trained to interpret them, I can’t always see how they help: many saints were brutally tortured and martyred, which does not exactly promise us a life of luxury for following Christ.  However, one of you out there has decided to follow a calling to become a teacher, and I know there are others who are thinking about committing that act, because you have asked me about it.  So I can only apologise for not offering a full, Scripture-based theological piece about vocational calling, because I wouldn’t be any good at it.  What advice I do have, though, I offer here, as a brief letter to the first of you to put his head above the parapet (I’ve changed his name) :


Oundle School, Church Street, Oundle PE8 4EE

28th January, 2016.

Dear James,


I’m sorry you are not getting a sermon, or a Scriptural analysis, or a full academic paper today; if you want something to ponder, go and look up George Herbert’s poetry and that should keep you going for a few years. You, but earth and clay, are indeed unfit to deal in holy Writ, or any of the important questions of life, let alone that most important of tasks, the raising and educating of children: why should you be different from the rest of us?


It might seem strange, but let’s start by thinking about Judas, the traitor disciple.  Those who would imagine themselves called by God to some profession or other, whether teaching or doctoring or the priesthood, or anything, should always keep Judas in mind. Because if we are not careful, those of us in the teaching business can easily end up looking and behaving very much like him.  Judas is different from the other eleven apostles by being the only one who thought that he knew what he was doing. And one of the most important convictions you must hang on to if you are taking up the sacred mantle of helping raise someone’s child, is the fact that, theologically speaking, you do not and cannot know what you are doing. If you let go of that conviction, if you think for one minute that you are any good at the ‘job’, then you are on the slippery slope to seeing teaching as a mere set of skills to be acquired or techniques to be learned, rather than what it is: the intense and troubled yielding to a calling and a love that will not let you go.


There’s a militant drive these days always to analyse things, to pick them apart and understand them with the tools of Reason.  Yet our pupils are human beings, noble creatures, not objects for dissection.  The Scriptures and the sacraments on which Christian faith is based (communion, baptism, marriage and so forth) are also a bit like people: we don’t love those whom we love because we fully understand them, but because we have met them; because we have encountered them. And the more we get to know and love a person, the more we realise there is yet more to know, something always just beyond our grasp.  To try to understand them is beside the point.  We meet them; we experience them; therefore, we love them.


This is a strange place to be, this not quite knowing, but it is the place to which we are all called in one way or another.  Answering this call is our duty and our joy, but quite often also our pain.  It is the place where divinity and humanity, time and eternity, grace and matter, collide.  It’s hard to describe what this strange place of meeting is.  For a teacher, perhaps the most obvious meeting place is the classroom, but there are others …


  • in the evening in the boarding house after several cups of tea when the pupil you’re with finally gets to the point and opens up to you;
  • when some disruptive pupil who has darkened the door of your classroom all year suddenly says ‘thank you’ after a lesson – and really means it;
  • when the doorbell goes while preparing a crucial lesson for next morning (or finally spending some time with one’s other half), and it’s a tutee who’s having a spot of bother;
  • when the phone goes and it’s a former colleague telling you about an old boy who got run over last night at university and probably won’t live when they switch off the machine in eight hours’ time …


This meeting of divinity and humanity even occurs at Departmental Meetings or other gatherings of ‘Christian’ persons – so long as we remember that Judas is alive and kicking in all sorts of ways to this day … especially in teaching!  The only proper response to this strange meeting place is not ‘understanding’ or ‘fear’ or even ‘thankfulness’, but rather ‘humility’ and ‘wonder’; something described rather well by the poet Emily Dickinson as:


“Not precisely Knowing

And not precisely knowing not

A beautiful but bleak condition

He has not lived who has not felt.”


There have been times when I have asked myself why on Earth I gave up a perfectly good, well paid job, in order to spend time training other men’s children, setting myself up to be the victim of totally unrealistic expectations from pupils’ parents, and even from colleagues – members of a large profession that, outside this School at least, spends an inordinate amount of its time wittering on about matters that have little or nothing to do with the education of young men and women, or that too often confuses human concerns with political motives, or whose pronouncements would be the stuff of high comedy if they did not affect the lives of actual, young human beings.


When this happens, I try to remind myself of this simple guide to a Schoolmaster’s Sanity:


  • hang onto the knowledge of your own inability to do what God has called you to do;
  • have faith in the grace that will transfigure that uselessness if you let it;
  • do not forget any moment or sounds or words, when the ‘glory of the story’ has crossed your path with sudden or especial clarity;
  • do not allow any one institution where you work to trivialise or parochialise your vision of what you are about;
  • do not hate the institution, for if you do not love it, you will not transfigure it, and you become part of the problem; by the same token, do not be seduced by the institution either;
  • do not settle for the cheap, sad little versions of Christianity or schoolmastering that satisfy far too many people these days; in sum, do not lose your capacity for wonder.


“Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand

To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake

Through th’old sins and new doctrines of our land.

Only, since God doth often vessels make

Of lowly matter for high uses meet,

I throw me at his feet.”


James, I hope this is all of some use.  With affection, best wishes and wonderful good luck;


Mr Gunson.




Acknowledgements: Some of this piece is based, by kind permission, on an address on the nature of the Priesthood and the poetry of George Herbert, by Fr Peter McGeary at the Edington Festival of Music within the Liturgy, 2014, a (C of E) choral music festival made up from the various Oxford & Cambridge collegiate, and cathedral, choirs.  Some of us at that event felt a strong and natural comparison between the two professions (in certain respects) and discussed it well into the night over drinks. I am grateful to Peter for his advice, counsel and permission to adapt some of his ideas, and those of colleagues at other schools.

For further references, see: Wilcox, Helen (ed.), The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 550-555 et passim. Scriptural passages of particular relevance might include: Genesis iii 9; Matthew vi 5; 1 Corinthians xv 47; 2 Corinthians iv 7; Isaiah lxiv 8.


George Herbert

George Herbert, 1593 – 1633