Can Middle Schoolers Learn the Trivium

(c) 2012 Earl L. Haehl Permission is given to use this article in whole as long as credit is given. Book rights are reserved.

One of the problems of students learning to write clearly is that they do not think clearly. It is more important that students are able to articulate ideas in a manner that is understood than that they be able to “express themselves” in whatever fashion happens to suit them at the moment.

In some ways schools teach their students what to think, but they have trouble teaching them how to think, partially because teachers are themselves conditioned rather than educated. By this I mean they are put through a curriculum that requires study of behavioral sciences and measurements that tell them how approach teaching as if method were somehow separated from and superior to subject matter.

So when you move students from a single classroom to a multi-classroom environment there are changes. For one thing, sixth graders, while they have a range of abilities, are essentially young men and women. There is no reason to treat them as children. They will either meet expectations or they will not. Baden Powell took 22 young men to Brownsea Island and gave minimal direction—relying rather on leadership and his leadership produced leadership in the young men and they formed into patrols and the experiment succeeded.

The question becomes: Can sixth graders handle the Trivium? Can the middle school crowd handle the Quadrivium? What we’re talking about here are the classical liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic; arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. It sounds daunting, but if broken down, it is not that difficult. It is simply that “educators” have decided on a curriculum that will stretch out the number of years in secondary education. In my grandparents’ day, eighth grade was a challenge and the eighth grade exams were difficult. These were phased out by the “reformers” because childhood needed to extended.

At the turn of the twentieth century this transformation into the modern school system was taking place. Arithmetic functions were taught from first through eighth grade and algebra did not come until ninth. Curricula were developed to be “age appropriate” per a curriculum which was predetermined. So the arithmetic functions I studied in eighth grade were the same ones I learned in a joint second-third grade classroom in a country school in Wyoming. And the first six weeks of math every year were “review.” The only saving grace we had in eighth was that the teacher decided to do a week on alpha-numeric codes and we had a week on statistics. Actually, we learned that dice when thrown have a one in six chance of landing so the dots on top add up to seven. But other than that it was boring.

The trivium is supposed to be learned first. Grammar is the structure of the language. English, like German, evolved from Norse with migrations from the north. What we often refer to as grammar is really a preferred style of writing and speaking. Diagramming sentences superimposing Latin structures on a language that is structurally different makes sense only to those indoctrated by schools of education—note: I was an expert at diagramming but my father majored in Latin and I took four years in class and another in independent study.

Rhetoric is how we convey ideas through writing and speaking, how we convince people we know what we are talking about.  The charge that writing is “just rhetoric” implies that this is somehow bad.  Those who do not study and learn are handicapped in work and ordinary discourse.  And yes, middle schoolers can learn the art.

Dialectic is on one of the lists–I prefer the term logic.  Those who do not learn logic cannot discern and process what they hear or read.  Because 1+2=3 is meaningful in a base 10 numeric system.  It does not relate the same in base three. Logic teaches how to break  down syllogisms to determine truth or deception.  Politicians, insurance salesmen and even teachers will make assertions that pass as fact.  They may sound reasonable but the key in logic is will they hold up?

The ability of the eleven to fourteen age group is assessed differently in an educational system than it may exist in fact.  I have worked with scouts who have passed the requirements for a badge called Citizenship in the world.  They not only have done the requirements but have explained to me the false premises in the support pamphlet.  And these are thirteen year olds.

Will they master the trivium.  Eventually, maybe.  What I am saying is that it is time to begin and there needs to be exposure to all the classical liberal arts at the point that the young are breaking away from being pupils to becoming students.


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