“The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children." G K Chesterton

Friday, May 02, 2014

Keeping the Trivium a Trivium

It strikes me as I begin school planning, how hard it is to keep it simple and for classical educators keeping it simple is imperative.  It gets confusing because we live in an age of information which continually pushes us to do more, more, more just to keep up. Sadly the end results of this push are children who do not love learning.

Here is the kicker. It is not the knowledge itself that is to blame. It would be perfectly delightful to study everything you could about almost anything we call a subject and that information would become knowledge. My theory is the fewer subjects you study the more real knowledge you gain in the areas you do study and if you want wisdom then you better pare it down to even more.

“…the greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. No one has time to do more than a very few things well before he is twenty, and when we force a boy to be a mediocrity in a dozen subjects, we destroy his standards, perhaps for life." C.S. Lewis Surprised by Joy
 I am convinced this is a key point in educating classically and I strive each year to pare down how many subjects we cover.  Like Charlotte Mason, I let wide reading cover as many 'subjects' as possible. Health, government, economics, theology, etc. can all be covered via wide, guided reading. So while I may have time set aside for Chemistry and Pre-Calculus for Andrew next year, the rest of his learning will come from vast reading and writing.  In other words, as an 11th grader he will be studying math, science, and rhetoric. That is a trivium. On his own, and in Morning Time, he will have music. Now we have a quadrivium.

Adding any more to this formula would be superfluous. 


  1. Okay, Cindy, this is really an interesting post. I have been thinking about this a lot. I have heard a lot of the simple argument from the classical side, and then I've heard people say that CM's "broad and generous" reading -- which does, in fact, cover a lot of "subjects" as you say -- is quite the opposite.

    I don't find that to be true; I find it enormously simple. But I can't explain how to reconcile the two. But you seem to be trying to that here. Want to say more? I'd love to hear it. :)

  2. Yes, Brandy, that is what I am trying to reconcile and like you it seems to make sense to me somewhere in my mind but I often wonder, when I take one tack or another if that is confusing to people who follow me.
    I often talk about the liberal arts as I think that is a close match to what Charlotte Mason was talking about when she spoke highly of knowledge. Sometimes when I am reading about classical education you get the idea that it is all about the process and not about the actual knowledge. I disagree with that but I also understand it. Charlotte thinks knowledge is good and not just the process of getting it but we live in a complex age of mass information so this becomes complicated for us.

    I think of John Adams...somewhere...telling John Quincy not to study history but rather to read it. I imagine JQA studying one thing at a time like Latin or Greek but then reading widely.

    I would love to hear your ideas, Brandy.

    1. Interesting about study versus reading. I think your post sort of begs that question -- is there a difference between study and wide reading, and if so what and how?

      Karen Glass recently told me about a classical author (can't remember which off the top of my head) who basically said that grammar = literature and not just weird games with sentences, and so I was thinking that maybe CM got inside of that.

      It is sort of like that scene in The Last Battle, where they realize the outside of the barn is much smaller than its inside -- that there is a whole beautiful, sunny world inside.. "Subjects" modernly understood are, perhaps, not inside the barn at all, and so it's like adding extra barns. But wide reading fits neatly inside the barn, along with everything else inside the barn, but because it is inside the barn, it fits and thrives and doesn't take away or distract?

      I don't know...just a thought.

    2. HI Cindy, this is Ginger,
      I just gave very similar advice to a young lawyer that is struggling with with the bible. He says to me "I have studied the bible." I responded....." Good, now sit down and read it."

      All the best,

  3. I think I know what this looks like in practice - ie the multum non multa & CM's generous education - and I can see the results of it; usually down the track as my kids get older; but I struggle to explain it (or reconcile it, like you said, Brandy). Interesting that people such as CS Lewis 'read' English Literature at Oxford, he didn't 'study' it.
    Subjects - the word makes compartments but when I think of literature, biography, natural science, history & geography, I think of them as part of one another/connected in a CM education.
    I often use the word 'lessons' because I don't like saying 'schoolwork' or 'subjects' but I don't know that it's much better.
    Interesting 'subject'?!

  4. One of my biggest regrets about who I've become as a person is that I'm such a dabbler -- I've never mastered anything, and now that my children are getting older and I'm beginning to have the time and resources to devote to mastering something, I find that I'm just tired and my mind isn't nimble any more. And I'm afraid I've been reproducing that in my children. My oldest daughter who draws is mastering a craft. My 15yod is mastering the violin. The rest of the kids are like me -- dabblers.

    I tend to think that mastering something is what is meant by "studying" it. Reading history means readings lots of biographies and so forth so that you have a broad idea of the whole flow of history. Studying it would mean picking one narrow time or place and learning all there is about that. I'm guessing Lewis would have said that it was better to study Greek, that is, to master it, so that you can read Thucydides and Plato and Aeschylus.

  5. I'm a dabbled, too, but I have hopes that at least one or two of my children won't be. Ok, this post is going to make me look at Joshua's "subjects" to see what can be covered by reading.

  6. I would like to hear more from you all about how *reading* is different from *studying* -- it sounds oh so right to my intuition, but I still haven't wrapped my mind around it...

  7. Great conversation. When I think of reading, I think of enjoying a work and it leading to interesting conversation, new ideas. Studying seems more about mastering pieces so that eventually you get the whole (study declensions and conjugations). Studying seems to be those things that take practice when there is a "right" answer or way to do it - something you can test. I think it is in our culture of education that if you can't study and test for knowledge then you must not be learning. The idea of reading widely pushes back against that model - I think. We do expect our kids to know what we have read from but not in a multiple choice way. Kern talks about skills and I think studying is tied more to skills and reading ties more in with ideas. It goes back to his thought about knowing the nature of a subject. I guess one way to think about is the difference between Mason's book of centuries for studying history versus the essay and multiple choice tests where you "study" dates, names, cause and effect. As mentioned above about Adams and history - the understanding will be very different. This is a great topic to consider.

  8. Hello! I found you via Sarah M.'s blog and Brandy's afterthoughts. :-). I think as I slowly tiptoe into the more CM/classical approach from a very relaxed, project-based/uschooly approach, I will find myself flitting amongst these three blogs to glean inspiration. I have so many questions/concerns and I'm feeling very overwhelmed right now but I will try to keep my question about the topic of your post. I'm not really understanding how CM is compatible with Classical's few subjects so I was wondering if you could expand on that a little more by giving an example how this would play out. What do you mean when you say, "read widely?" I DO know after following more of a simply charlotte mason schedule for a few months after being unschooly, we were so happy to be reading together but I found that going deep wasn't happening because of all the subjects we had to cover in our morning time. For instance, for history, I would read from D'Aulieres greek myths book but there wasn't enough time to read the DK Eyewitness book together or any of the other non-fiction reads because I wanted to cover the poetry, literature, faith, and Shakespeare. Discussion about what we're reading wasn't happening. I thought about trying what Sarah wrote about and looping the subjects to go deeper but my children don't want to read from the same book for an hour. So, I'm a little lost as to what to do.

  9. Elizabeth, This is an excellent question and I would love to hear a few other perspectives and answers rather than just my own.
    By wide reading I mean something that looks like the Ambleside Online reading schedules. Almost every subject is covered by reading the best books and the best books are literary books. In other words, you can skip the DK books. I have never used or read a DK book to my child. I have bought a couple only to find them good mostly for thumbing through. We used to have Usborne books which always looked good but ended up being rather useless. These sorts of books are the anti-thesis of what we are going for in my opinion.

    I think the reason that is might be because classical or CM education is about ideas and not just information.

    The way you have time for wide reading is to cut out a lot of other stuff. Years ago I was inspired by Art Robinson whose wife had died. He homeschooled his children using a simple formula: 2 hours a day of math, one written narration, 2-3 hours of reading. That's it and they all went on to be quite amazing college students. The 2-3 hours of reading covered everything else. Now Art didn't call himself a classical educator although I think he might have acknowledged CM.

    I also believe that if you are reading the right books then you get a lot of depth for your time. You don't need hours and hours to go deep. The ideas are already deep. Also you don't go deep at any given moment. The depth comes when you have given your child something to ponder or a meal worth digesting. He doesn't have to gorge himself to be satisfied.

    I hope that helps. I would love for Brandy or Karen Glass to answer this question. I am not an official CM spokesperson and my own ideas have formed rather haphazardly over the years. I do not speak for classical education either. I have just found great comfort in the CM approach and find it most compatible with the classical one.

    1. And *I* would like Karen Glass to answer this question because I am still mulling it over myself. I do think we have depth in our homeschool, but I still can't form a cohesive answer to this question.

      So, naturally, I emailed Karen to make sure she saw this. :)

      Here's hoping she shows up!

    2. Hello Cindy!

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions! It helps if I try to rephrase what you're saying:

      Those usborne, DK-type books are basically glorified textbooks in that they focus on factual information. The purpose of these books is to inform, not inspire. My kids happen to like all of those encyclopedia book of facts, but with mama's limited time, I need to focus on those books that inspire. I think part of the reason I feel so overwhelmed sometimes is due to the sheer number of books we could be reading...and there's LOTS of good stuff we could be reading. But you're saying we moms should focus on the BEST of what literature has to offer and not just what is good during morning time.

      I also gathered that introducing varied subjects each day actually helps to prevent wasting time on lesser information. If I had an hour to cover history each day, I could READ an inspiring work of fiction as well as read DK books. But having to cover a lot of ground with many different areas each day, it forces us moms to focus on our goal of "ordering the affections" with truth beauty and goodness so we have to cut out those things that may be good to know, but not necessarily inspiring. Does that make sense? Am I on the right track?

      I guess my next question is: do you ever have them read factual history textbooks on their own? Are you saying that dates and the reasons why wars took place are not important? Or does this get covered after years of reading historical fiction.

      And here's something else I'm struggling with: Am I wrong to say that we shouldn't even have many in-depth discussions about what we read? I've read many posts over this weekend AND I listened to your podcast about morning time and I'm unsure about this. I want to have deep discussions and make connections. Maybe it's because I'm SO starved for this myself due to my own horrible education. I have a tendency to think out loud while reading aloud and tell my 11 year old the connections I just came up with...because they excite me, I'm learning right along with my children. The problem I have been having with trying to cover so many topics a day during our morning time is that we don't have too much time to just ponder out loud...it's time to move on to the next subject. But from what I gather, you're saying that this is actually a good thing because the children should make their own connections in their own time and it actually becomes a good arguement FOR covering several areas in a day. Sigh. Please, don't think I'm being argumentative. I'm trying to sort out all my confusion and believe it or not, your first response WAS helpful. I REALLY appreciate your mentoring.

    3. Elizabeth, I appreciate you questions and do not think you are argumentative at all. In fact, I still struggle with many of these questions so I am guessing most of us do. How do we find a balance?

      I guess my next question is: do you ever have them read factual history textbooks on their own? Factual, yes, but still literary. We read quite a bit of non-fiction and many overview type books on different subjects but I try to make sure they are literary in nature. We quit reading one book on astronomy last year because although it came highly recommended the language was dull. On the other hand, we are thoroughly enjoying reading Science Matters because it is written in a lively, engaging style.

      If your children love the DK books then that frees you up even more. Let them read them in their free time. That is the best use of those sorts of books. Then the child is guided through the book by sheer joy and interest.

      As to discussion: I still struggle with how much is the right amount and how much really happens. In MT we discuss something every day and I do not plan that, I just try to let that happen where ever it happens and then because we are studying common things in MT the door is always open for further discussions to take place both now and ever after since it becomes a part of our shared heritage. This does occur. The boys often argue also :) But we cannot stop to discuss everything during MT. That would ruin it. But the ideas are still in the mind at least the ones the child grabs onto and the child will always have an ongoing discourse in his own head. And yes, the connections really are made by the child. Not every day maybe but a rich environment leads to rich thoughts and giving the child freedom to play is in a way giving them freedom to think on the things that have captured their attention.

      I hope that helps. I wonder sometimes if more discussion would be more enlivening to the children but I am beginning to think not. Discussion between two or three people is probably better than a classroom discussion that captures the attention of the few at the expense of the many. We don't want that to happen too often in MT.

    4. May I tack a question on here, Cindy? Though it would also be relevant to your current post. What is the place for a program like King's Meadow with more lectures directly from a teacher? Or Wes Callihan's new program on the Great Books? I'm so very interested in using something like that in high school, to sit at the feet of an inspired teacher with my children, but I also wonder feel unsure about more direct lecturing and connection-making than we've done so far.


    5. Jami,
      This is my problem, I am not consistent. I love Dr. Grant's lectures and all of my children since my 2nd son have used them and I have not intention of stopping. Dr. Grant is a wonderful speaker who loves what he talks about. This is perfection. We are more likely to find this sort of love and information in a book but when we find it in lectures I am ok with it. The thing that trips me up is people who criticize homeschooling moms because they couldn't possible "teach" everything. This, I think, is a fundamentally wrong way to look at education.

  10. Thank you, Brandy. I have showed up and read the comments. (I read Cindy's post earlier in my blog feed.) I can't answer this in a blog comment. I've tried a couple of times, and there are just so many things to consider.

    1. Trivium=3-way crossroad (like a "Y" intersection)...it's not three consecutive roads.
    2. Classical education is about synthetic thinking, so everything is part of one thing. ("Education is the science of relations.")
    3. Arts are meant to be practiced, and can be practiced at rudimentary levels before they are mastered. The liberal arts are arts, not subjects.
    4. The trivium arts intersect around language, which means they are practiced around books. Any and all worthy books are fair game as fodder for trivium practice.
    5. See how CM gathers all knowledge under one heading, to be approached in literary form:
    Matthew Arnold, we know, classifies all knowledge under three heads,––the knowledge of God, divinity, the knowledge of man, known as the 'humanities' and the knowledge of the physical world, science, and that is enough to go on with. But I should like to question this division and to class all three parts of knowledge under the head of Humanism, which should include all knowledge that makes a direct appeal to the mind through the channel of literary form.

    What I'd really like to say, at length, is...chapter eleven.


      So when am I getting a copy of that one? :)

      ps. You gave us a lot to think about in those five points...I'll be chewing on that today.

    2. Thank-you and excellent and I hope by Chapter Eleven you mean your own book.

    3. Yes...very nearly there, and confident enough now to believe that I will finish.

      Brandy, chapter eleven really needs chapter ten...hang in there...before the end of May, I'm sure.

  11. Oh I'm glad I stopped by to see if there were new comments here tonight!