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Trivium Explained: The What, the Y, and Better than Binary


The trivium has never been one thing, one agreed-upon curriculum or even one set of agreed-upon labels. Grammar is often replaced by "poetics" or "literature" and dialectic is often replaced by "logic" or "philosophy." Dialectic has become a particularly difficult term to use since the development of the Hegelian dialectic as a specific philosophical method, and the meaning of grammar has largely been reduced to the study and teaching of syntactical conventions. Why re-introduce an unstable and problematic educational schema into a discussion of new media and digital communication, especially on an open wiki where the definition could change daily? Because the terms need the open re-invigoration and re-invention possible via a wiki and discussion board, rather than a static re-assertion of classical definitions. The trivium also needs, and provides, a new image—the Y—which holds the branches of the trivium together as a multiplicity of intermingling discourses rather than a binary of competing discourses.

What is the trivium?

The trivium, generally recognized among historians as an educational schema consisting of instruction in grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, was in place by the Hellenstic period, 4th - 1st centuries BCE, according to George A. Kennedy's (1994) A New History of Classical Rhetoric. The classical trivium, although not a label Kennedy uses, is presented by Kennedy and others as a progression from grammar-the study of "language and literature"-to rhetoric-the "study of prose writers and techniques for argument, amplification, and ornamentation"-culminating in "study in one of the philosophical schools" like "Plato's successors, the Academics, and Aristotle's successors, the Peripatetics" (p. 83-84). Kennedy pointed out that the divisions among the trivium were not hard and fast, with advanced work in grammar often overlapping with rhetoric and philosophical schools generating "some of the most important advances in rhetorical theory" (p. 83-84).

We know from Plato's Gorgias and Phaedrus, as well as other sources, that this progressive approach to education was not without its tensions and disagreements, Socrates most famously asserting the value of dialectic over rhetoric, and Cicero later trying to repair the Socratic split between mind and tongue. McLuhan's (2006) history of the trivium foregrounds the battles and differences more than Kennedy's history; McLuhan asserted that Aristotle and Plato were enemies of rhetoric because they did not want dialectic serving rhetoric (p. 42), while the encyclopedic ideal, which is indebted to Cicero and tends to emphasize grammar and rhetoric, had its roots in the Sophists (p. 44). Socrates as dialectician, McLuhan explained, was not interested in organizing knowledge eloquently but instead interested in examining the status and nature of things (p. 45). The trivium as an educational scheme declined between the end of the classical period and the Renaissance because, according to Kennedy, "there was a deterioration of the conditions of the civic life that had created and sustained the study and uses of rhetoric throughout antiquity in courts of law and deliberative assemblies" (p. 271). McLuhan challenged the standard interpretation of the Middle Ages by emphasizing the vitality of Christian education at that time, an education that emphasized grammar and rhetoric. "[T]he modern historians of the Renaissance," McLuhan said, "are wont to describe it as a rediscovery of antiquity either forgotten or despised by the men of the Middle Ages; whilst the men of the Middle ages seem always to have considered that they were modern men, living in a modern age and entrusted by God with the mission both of preserving the classical culture of Greece and Rome [grammar], and of enlarging it and bringing it to perfection through the teaching of Christ" [rhetoric] (p. 90). McLuhan and Kennedy agreed that "Classical grammar and rhetoric were intensively studied in French and English cathedral schools of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but rhetoric was overshadowed by dialectic in medieval universities until the Renaissance brought a rediscovery of major works on rhetoric by Cicero and Quintilian and of Greek writings" (Kennedy, 1994, p. 274).

The trivium as educational schema was supplemented even in antiquity by the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy—although these seven liberal arts, according to Kimball (1986: 14), were neither consistently nor rigidly applied in Western schools from Roman through early modern times. The seven liberal arts gave way to increasingly specialized disciplines and fields of study as the modern, Enlightenment university took shape. Hal McDonald (2003), drawing on a 1947 essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, explained:

This was the point at which Western education, faced with that information revolution commonly referred to as the Renaissance, increasingly embraced a scattershot study of discrete subjects in lieu of the more method-oriented approach that had been employed-whether consciously or not-since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The result of this shift in pedagogical paradigms, Sayers noted, was a culture with ready access to more raw information than at any time in human history, and yet whose collective ability to critically evaluate such information was poorer than at any time since the rise of Greek civilization. In order for modern civilization to gain control of our information, and hence our destiny, we must recover the lost tools of learning, which it was the primary purpose of a classical education to instill. (p. 1561)


The spirit of the trivium, endorsing a broad, general education of knowledge acquisition, the development of communication skills, and finally an expectation of critical reflection, still informs some approaches to education from primary through post-secondary education, loosely informs university General Education programs that seek to broaden students knowledge while also developing their communication and critical thinking skills, and any English department that starts with a first-year rhetoric / grammar course, followed by literature surveys and introductions to the field, followed by rhetorical / production courses, and building towards theory-based upper-level seminars. Neither the historical weight that the trivium carries, nor the "agency of image" that the trivium potentially posses, have been significantly employed by universities, English departments, nor new media programs to shape curricular change nor understand interdisciplinary differences. In retrieving the trivium, our goal is not so much to be faithful to the original definitions of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, nor to be faithful to the progressive educational model-first grammar, then rhetoric, then dialectic - but to understand how knowledge acquisition, application, and critical reflection are relevant to understanding new media. As we suggested in the opening, drawing on the trivium as heuristic should force us as teachers, scholars, and curriculum builders to envision a broad and diverse approach to either incorporating new media into existing English department curriculums or forging new humanities-based new media curriculums.

Y the trivium?

Gregory Ulmer (2005) introduced the "Wishing Y" in his chapter entitled "The Agency of Images" and part of the appeal of the trivium for us is the image we have been trying to make over—the T/Y—the "T" of the trivium being massaged into a "Y," representing the three integrated but diverse branches of the trivium. The "Y" might still represent the traditional divide—the base of grammar leading to either rhetoric or dialectic—or it might seem like the image could be turned on its head to produce a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but instead we have commissioned something more like the spinning Y of Will Pappenheimer's SoftWishingYMonument.

Drawing on the classical trivium is, by nature of such a retrieval, a conservative, integrative move: It requires us to tangle curricularly diverse courses like literature survey courses, linguistics courses, history courses, and perhaps the increasingly popular kinds of gateway courses (e.g. Introduction to Writing Studies) as the "grammar courses," and in the context of new media and digital communication, we need to make space within the curriculum or within individual courses to provide the "grammar" of new media. Rhetoric courses include offerings as diverse as creative writing, business and technical communication courses, and digital authoring courses. Dialectic courses become literary theory, rhetorical theory, critical literacy and linguistics courses, and philosophy of media and technology courses. This synthesizing, integrating move will only work if departments and the discipline value the "agency of the image" over the diversity and difference of specialization.

The value of the image functions most obviously for an external audience: English studies in the public sphere is frequently defined by negative images of the up-tight grammarian, the flaky and/or alcoholic though sometimes inspiring literature or creative writing teacher, or the aesthete Shakespearean. While the trivium does not embody a character, and that may limit its value (who or what is the face of English studies?), we hope that a re-invigorated trivium could communicate three pedagogical functions of an English department: helping students develop diverse cultural knowledge, helping students develop their powers of expression, and helping students sharpen their critical reflection abilities. Even as it could present a coherent image to a non-specialist public, the Y as tangled discourse could still respect the diversity of specializations within English departments, but encourage intermingling. Ours is a hopeful image, a "wishing Y," coming out of our experiences in divided but not torn departments in which we have caught glimpses of better integrated, more productive possibilities.

The classical trivium has been successful in guiding and shaping the homeschooling movement in America, according to Hal McDonald's (2003) "Decoding the Trivium." The trivium's tightly integrated curriculum and progression from grammar, through logic, to rhetoric is seen as an antidote to the scattered and disconnected pattern of public school curriculums which move from a personal focus on "My family and community" eventually out to "Other People's Countries" (p. 1566). A contemporary trivium does not need to value the same old texts, and in the context of applying the trivium to new media studies, it will be essential that any re-invigorations of the trivium precisely include new grammatical elements, new rhetorical schemes and patterns, and new questions to be asked and considered.

Better than binary

A reconsideration of the value of the trivium seems particularly useful in light of the tendency in the second half of the 20th century to collapse epistemological and educational debates into a binary, rather than trivial matter. Kimball’s (1986) Orators and Philosophers, for example, collapsed rhetoric and grammar very early in the book into “the literary tradition” (p. 25) and ended with the call to bring speech and reason, orators and philosophers together (p. 240). Stanley Fish’s (1990) essay “Rhetoric” provocatively sketched the constant oscillation between the antirhetorical and the rhetorical, between philosophy and rhetoric. What Fish saw is a constant "tug-of-war between two views of human life and its possibilities, no one of which can ever gain complete and lasting ascendancy because in the very moment of its triumphant articulation each turns back in the direction of the other" (p. 501). Fish's contemporary rhetoricians, however, are post-structuralist (Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida), resulting in an essay that might have been more accurately titled "the two faces of philosophy." Richard Lanham (1993) invoked classical rhetoric as a guide to understanding "the electronic word," but he too characterized the "unstable Western self" as divided between being philosophical and rhetorical, although he advocated "forc[ing] these extremes into that bi-stable oscillation which has created our richly felt Western life since Plato and Isocrates first started it rocking two-and-a-half millennia ago" (p. 25). James Berlin’s (1996) Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures suggested a historical oscillation between rhetoric and poetics, with the former being the larger, more encompassing category, the latter being dominant only in the post-Romantic age, and specifically dominant in the modern English department (p. 27). Berlin's work is infused with the ideas of post-structuralist philosophers or contemporary dialecticians, but he tended to group postmodern philosophers and cultural studies advocates like Stuart Hall with the social-epistemic rhetoricians (p. xviii). His call was for a “rhetorically conceived English studies” intersecting with the hermeneutic tradition shaped by the “Birmingham school of cultural studies” (p. 180).

While these works do not cover precisely the same ground as one another, nor the same ground as McLuhan, they all range over roughly the same historical territory—the history of western education and epistemology. Of these historical accounts of education, only McLuhan keeps the three strands separate, a separation that we think preserves a broader array of productive and critical strategies and avoids the deterministic implication of the metaphor of the pendulum. His trivium avoids the binary either/or formulations of Kimball, Fish, Lanham, and Berlin; although to be fair to these scholars, they are all advocating some kind of synthesis or complimentarity between rhetoric and philosophy or rhetoric and poetics.

We look forward to learning more about Collin Gifford Brooke's application of the trivium, hinted at in this PowerPoint presentation from the Modern Language Association's annual conference, 2006. His presentation zoomed in on "rhetoric," offering suggestive but under-developed concepts of grammar (the ecology of code) and logic (the ecology of culture).


The trivium slide.


Created by admin. Last Modification: Saturday 05 of July, 2014 23:39:16 UTC by admin.