Saturday, January 28, 2006

It's trivial (not)

In the Middle Ages, education preserved and developed one of the gems of understanding of the ancient Roman world: the concept of a foundation of three subjects -- Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Whatever speciality each educated person might eventually take up, he would start with those things, and not go on to specialization until he had learned them.

Together, these three subjects gave a student the chief things he would need to use that unique gift to human beings: the ability to understand and articulate thoughts and emotions through words, and thus to come closer to Truth.

It seems to me that there's a close analogy in that choice of subjects to teaching how to build a beautiful building (at which the the Roman and Medieval worlds were masterful).

Grammar taught about the bricks of language and how to mortar them together.

Logic taught how to take the pieces that one could make with bricks and mortar -- walls, pillars, and so on -- and engineer a building that would stand up to wind and weather.

Rhetoric taught how to make that building beautiful. And beauty has great power to convince.

These three foundational subjects were known as the trivium, or the three paths. It's a reflection of how far the modern world has fallen in understanding that the only derived word people now know is "trivial," meaning unimportant.

I'm not saying that grammar, logic, and rhetoric should be taught to the exclusion of the other subjects we've come to expect in university curricula. I'm only saying that they're the foundation, and without the foundation, the rest of what we try to build will always be shaky, and will often be ugly.