George Orwell’s momentous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was written as a warning against irrationality and ignorance leading to tyranny, but in the early twenty-first century Western world it reads more like a prophecy. Instead of thoughtcrimes, there are tweetcrimes where a single, one-hundred-forty character misstep can cost an individual their career, intimate relationships, and sometimes their life. Instead of the Ministry of Truth, there is a culture of doubt which spawned the now ubiquitous term “fake news.” Examples of Newspeak created by a culture of political correctness abound – regime change (war), alternative facts (revisions/untruths), quantitative easing (printing money). Truth itself is on the operating table as more and more Westerners exhibit a willingness to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. But how did this happen? Surely the germs of such ideas could not infect healthy minds. There’s the rub; the Western mind has become sick with an intellectually transmitted disease. The disease is essentially a collection of disparate ideas loosely allied together under the philosophical umbrella term known as post-modernism. The central tenet of post-modern thought can be summarized in one sentence: there is no such thing as truth (Postmodernism). In practice, this means everything is subjective and all subjectivities are equal. With that jumping off point, it’s easy to see how concepts like fake news and alternative facts metastasized into mainstream culture. As for the point of origin, the post-modern epidemic has been festering in Western education systems for decades. The universities, specifically the humanities departments, were patient zero. From there, the intellectual contagion wormed its way into teacher training programs, finally spreading like a fever in elementary and secondary schools where the minds of the young were not yet sufficiently inoculated against irrationality. Fortunately, this disease need not kill the patient. The Western immune system can rally by remembering its roots. The classical Trivium should be taught early and often in Western public education to increase quality in the areas of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; restore prominence and respect to the language arts; and supplant teaching practices derived from post-modernism.
A CASE STUDY
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recently published a piece titled “All-American Boys, All-American Teachers: Teaching What Matters Most in 2017.” The article was written by student teacher Kaylin Upah (Upah). Since student teaching is the culmination of both undergraduate and graduate teacher certification programs, Upah’s point of view comes not from experience, but from what she was taught during her time in higher education, making her an appropriate avatar to represent post-modern trends in the field. Furthermore, her take was published by NCTE which amounts to an endorsement. Upah’s overall theme is centered on race, a common trope of identity politics which is an off-shoot of post-modernism. However, the content that does not focus on race is the most disturbing. Sandra Cisneros is quoted at length and is invoked by the author as a way to frame her view when she asks, “What should we be doing as English teachers to save the lives of our students?” (Upah). Such self-aggrandizement is not unusual for a prospective teacher, considering many enter the field for noble, often altruistic reasons. Under post-modernism, however, this messiah-complex is clogged by solipsism; truth is subjective, therefore all subjectivities are true – therefore this young student teacher knows how to “save the lives of our students” by teaching English (Upah).
How will Kaylin save students? She answers in two ways. Near the end of the article, she details some items that, in her opinion, are no longer relevant. Upah writes, “it is funny how things like spelling mistakes, vocabulary lessons, and rubrics suddenly seem so insignificant when you start teaching what matters most” (Upah). This disregard of spelling, vocabulary, and careful attention to student work is virtually a disregard for the practice of grammar. What then matters most? According to Upah, “blogging, spoken word, and advocacy journalism” (Upah). But she is clearly fallacious in her thinking. She presents a false dichotomy, telling us that expression should be emphasized over grammatical fluency. Is spelling not essential to an effective blog? Is a varied vocabulary not beneficial to the spoken word? Should journalists not be able to produce writing that adheres to a high standard (rubric)? To the contrary, grammatical skills empower students to better express themselves. However, in 2017, NCTE has no problem publishing an article calling such skills “insignificant” (Upah). It is more important to the messianic Upah that she creates the students in her own image, after all, she is an advocacy blogger (Upah, “Light Bulb Moments”). This is not pedagogy; it is ideology.
Subjective, emotion-based educational practices have plagued our education system since the late nineteen-sixties when the self-esteem movement became en vogue (Baskin). What has the Western world received in return? In America, the results are noxious. Using data from the National Assessment of Educational progress, a study found that “while the 2015 average 4th-grade reading score was not measurably different from the 2013 score, the average 8th-grade score was lower in 2015 than in 2013. . . At grade 12, the average reading score in 2015 was not measurably different from that in 2013” (NCES xxxiv). Among all grade levels, over sixty percent of students were assessed as below proficient in reading (NCES xxv). This means that over half of American students cannot summarize main ideas and themes, draw conclusions, or make evaluations after reading a text. They are functionally illiterate.
Once these students leave secondary school, their deficiencies have real world implications. The ability to clearly communicate is a soft skill that employers desperately need. Unfortunately, they must draw from an illiterate population, bringing the infection into their organizations. A study established by the National Commission on Writing found that “blue chip businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training–annually” (Moore 2). That is the equivalent of 62,000 jobs, earning an annual salary of $50,000 each, that cannot be created because the education system fails to teach students how to read and write. But it gets worse. The same study found that over half of the companies sampled consider writing skills during the hiring process and promotions for salary positions (CollegeBoard 9, 15). However, only sixteen percent of companies said the same regarding hourly positions. Therefore, our malignant education system is effectively consigning sixty-percent of graduates to low-paying, hourly jobs. Should they try to ascend the ladder to a salaried position, they will find themselves locked out – quarantined. Blogging, spoken word, and advocacy journalism become a bitter consolation prize, a mere participation trophy.
Thankfully, post-modern subjectivity is not the great tradition upon which Western civilization was erected. In classical antiquity, philosophers and teachers differentiated between the utilitarian arts and the liberal arts. Utilitarian arts equipped individuals with the means to earn a living by acting in the capacity of a servant, but the liberal arts uplifted and empowered people, allowing “one to free their mind” (Joseph 5). Liberal arts, in the classical sense, encompass two tiers of knowledge, the trivium and quadrivium. The quadrivium, which was to be taught after the trivium, focused study on arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (Joseph 7). At first mention, the focus seems limited, but it is truly dynamic when examined deeper. Arithmetic is the theory of number; music is an application of the theory. Geometry is the theory of space; astronomy is a real world application (Joseph 8). This balanced, time-honored approach is anything but unsophisticated.
However, the trivium was always taught first. As the quadrivium encompassed four subjects, the trivium had three – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Like the Holy Trinity, these skills are not separate; they are a synergistic stack of knowledge. Why was this stack taught before anything else? Sister Miriam Joseph, an expert on the trivium, explains:
The trivium is the organon, or instrument, of all education at all levels because the arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric are the arts of communication itself in that they govern the means of communication – namely, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Thinking is inherent in these four activities (Joseph 6).
This is a beautiful way to sequence education. First, teach students to think, then teach specific subjects.
The grandeur of the trivium cannot be overstated. The high-water marks of Western civilization rose from times when the trivium was discovered, or rediscovered and reinvigorated. Classical Greece dreamed up democracy, Medieval universities bore the Renaissance, and post-Renaissance thinkers wrought the Enlightenment. In those times, the trivium was basic, essential (Joseph 6). How do we save the lives of our children in the areas where post-modern language arts instruction has left them crippled, listless, and alone? There is no need for a new fad, government program, or convention circuit. The answer is the golden torch of knowledge lit by our forbearers. Simply pass it to the students. Teach them to read, to write, to think – save the blogging, spoken word, and advocacy journalism for a later date.
OPPOSING EDUCATIONAL PRACTICES
Kaylin Upah’s approach is indicative of post-modern trends in education, but not exhaustive. Many bad ideas have parasitized education in the west. Some of the most prevalent infestations in English language arts today include advocacy for non-standard English, social constructivism, and the abandonment of literary classics. When held under the light of the trivium, the pathological nature of these ideas becomes evident.
Grammar. Jacques Derrida, one of the prominent hosts of post-modernism, espoused the view that “written marks or signifiers do not arrange themselves within natural limits, but form chains of signification that radiate in all directions” (Postmodernism). The crux of that view is that language, especially written language, does not represent meaning; instead, it only represents itself. Therefore, language and its associated grammatical ruleset are arbitrary. This sentiment is extended in the book Other People’s English. The authors conclude that ideas about “correct” language are forms of social prejudice (Young 55). One author, a professor at the University of Michigan writes, “it didn’t matter what grammar students use because I was interested in what students knew rather than the dialect they happened to speak” (Young 57). This is a heartfelt, sentimental approach to education, but whom does it benefit? Does the amputation of grammatically correct standard English help the student in the long run? Or does it immediately benefit the professor by making them feel like they’re not contributing to social prejudice? Pedagogy or ideology?
While it is true that the structure of grammar is arbitrary between languages, it is not arbitrary within a language. A sign that says, “No trespassing violators will be prosecuted” is quite different from a sign that says, “No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” To test whether the arrangement of marks and signifiers arrange themselves within natural limits, Derrida need only lurch into each posted area; it is doubtful he would find the results to be arbitrary. Grammar was taught as part of the trivium precisely to avoid such ambiguity or arbitrariness. Both writer and reader, or speaker and listener, must share common terms for meaning to be accurately conveyed (Joseph 70). In the Medieval university system, this was well understood. Since students hailed from across Europe and beyond, they spoke many tongues. However, the standard language and grammar of the university was Latin, and all subjects were taught in Latin (Bragg). This enabled students and their masters to share a common set of linguistic tools by which they could come to terms. If the University of Michigan professor was alive at that time, he would have seen Latin grammar as a form of social prejudice, missing the beauty of standardized, streamlined communication.
Cui bono? Who benefits from non-standard English advocacy? It will not be students seeking a salaried position. It will not be students who dream of a promotion. It will not be employers who must adjust their bottom line to correct the devastation spread by irresponsible English teachers. Again, we see a false dichotomy. Non-standard English and Standard English can both be valued. Teaching should be directed where a specific deficiency presents itself. Like Latin before it, standard English has become an international means of communication. Increasingly, it is the language of business, diplomacy, finance, law, science, and the world wide web. In the current global era, those who suffer the amputation of standard English grammar from their curriculum will find themselves without a leg up.
Logic. The illogical DNA of post-modernism is visible in its key assertion: there is no such thing as truth. If there is no such thing as truth, then the revelation asserting this view cannot be true either. It is a paradoxical conclusion. In order to secrete past this initial fallacy, post-modernists claim that everything is a social construct, including logic itself (Postmodernism). When this doublethink is spread to the classroom, teachers move from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. More and more, students are taught to construct knowledge socially. Children teach children; the blind lead the blind. Forget about the college educated, subject-matter-expert in the room who is being paid to teach. This non-learning is sold to parents and teachers alike under the guise of teaching teamwork and is often called collaborative or cooperative learning. There are no right or wrong answers; every opinion is valid. There is an infinite way to interpret everything.
The idea of socializing children and teaching teamwork is not entirely misguided. Lev Vygotsky pioneered this area of educational theory early in the twentieth century (Woolfolk 67). Vygotsky observed that higher mental processes are first co-constructed through shared activities. The processes that facilitate successful co-construction are then replicated on an individual level through self-talk, finally moving into a system of unspoken, internal thought (Woolfolk 68). Jean Piaget, another titanic educational theorist, noticed something similar, but couched it in different terms. In the Piagetian view, functional cognitive development is the result of learning to navigate myriad game scenarios encountered in the real world (Woolfolk 58). He understood that learning to play the social game was a result of exposure to social interaction. However, he also realized that social skills only encompass one area of cognition. Who was right? Nearly one-hundred years after Vygotsky, science has delivered a verdict. Children develop social and academic skills as the result of child-initiated, unstructured play (Uren and Stagnetti 33). The significance is two-fold. First, “children with proficient pretend play skills are socially competent with peers and are able to engage in classroom activity [while] children who scored poorly on the play assessment were more likely to have difficulty interacting with their peers and engaging in school activities” (Uren and Stagnetti 33). Second, this social competence as the result of unstructured play is achieved by around age seven (Uren and Stagnetti 35). If schools would drop the social constructivism from their curriculum in favor of recess, they would achieve the teamwork skills they so desperately seek to develop.
In addition to missing the mark, social constructivism has a dark side: groupthink. This phenomenon is the “potential downside that groups face where conformity pressure can lead to defective decision-making” (Rose 51). In other words, the social pressure of the group dynamic tends to suppress individual voices. When students socially construct knowledge, they are susceptible to self-censorship, ingroup bias, and overconfidence in their answer – all components of irrational, illogical thinking (Rose 51).
The trivium contrasts sharply with the social-constructivist view of knowledge. Whereas the post-modernists believe there is an infinite way to interpret knowledge, the logic of the trivium is predicated on natural reality, the thing-as-it-is-known (Joseph 9). In fact, the very goal of logic is to strip away as much subjectivity as possible in order to apprehend truth. For this reason, logic and grammar are tightly linked. With grammar, the real is symbolized in the abstract. The word ball does not refer to a particular ball, it refers to the set of all possible balls. Therefore, what is true of ball must be true of all past, present, and future balls, else the term is not adequate. Sister Miriam Joseph comments, “abstract words are usually clearer and more precise than concrete words, for abstract knowledge is clearer, although less vivid, than sense knowledge” (Joseph 29). This reliable procession from grammar to logic is what enabled the Western mind to simultaneously represent the real while correcting for subjectivity.
The elegance of logic can be seen in the tradition of dialectic. In the early days of the trivium, the Sophists argued without logic, employing only rhetoric. A Sophist was only concerned with who was perceived to win an argument through persuasion. They did not care if their argument was valid or not, nor did they care if it led to new knowledge (Joseph 225). Compare this to the logical practice of dialectic, which is the opposition of two arguments. The winner of the dialectic was considered to be the individual who lost the argument, because, having been disproven, they walked away with new knowledge; the successful arguer, on the other hand, left with the same knowledge they had before (Joseph 226). This process of amicable reason eventually gave rise to the modern scientific method. Logic, and logical processes, now form the foundation of every electrical engineering feat, every computer language, and every laboratory experiment. If the education system truly wants students to succeed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the humanities must reclaim the trivium, reclaim linguistic logic, and eradicate the post-modern paradox.
Rhetoric. Enter Michel Foucault, the patron saint of post-modernism. To the Petri dish, he adds the idea that, since there is no truth, everything boils down to power (Postmodernism). Without Foucault, it is possible that post-modernism would not have mutated into identity politics. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the education system or the world writ large. In another NCTE article, a teacher writes, “as teachers and teacher educators, our selection of diverse texts must be intentional and must play a role in eradicating racial and social injustice and inequality” (Davis). The post-modern power criteria for effective classroom literature is obvious. It is not enough for a post-modern English teacher to select a work of quality, the work must also “play a role in eradicating racial and social injustice and inequality” (Davis). In other words, books must be selected with the power dynamics of identity politics always at the fore. These political inclinations necessitate the abandonment of literary classics because they were all written by dead, white males “as a delivery system for, say, imperialist and sexist ideology” (Stevenson 69). Now literary classics, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Merchant of Venice are dubbed racist, or sexist, or both – then abandoned.
Again, the focus of the classroom has shifted from education to political ideology. But questions are in order. Are kids taught to read great works so they can eradicate racial and social injustice? Or are kids taught to read great works so they can become familiar with the techniques of master communicators? If, by studying the classics, students become master communicators, are they not better equipped to eradicate social and racial injustice?
The Trivium responds. Building upon grammar and logic, the trivium teaches rhetoric, which can be defined as communication that “deals with particular questions, such as political action, proceeds by uninterrupted discourse, usually employs nontechnical language, and is addressed to a popular audience” (Joseph 227). Rhetoric is still alive in English classrooms, but is usually limited to the anemic persuasive essay. A true rhetorician can do so much more; fiction, poetry, drama, essays – all forms of communication are fertile ground for rhetorical brilliance. When the classics are abandoned, so are the master rhetoricians of Western civilization. To measure the effectiveness of their rhetoric, one need only look at their endurance, continued relevance, and universal appeal. Hamlet, for instance, was penned more than four-hundred years ago, but continues to be performed today and is available in more than seventy-five languages (Estill and Johnson). Clearly, Shakespeare’s rhetoric touched some truth inherent to the human condition. When teaching effective communication, should teachers abandon the bard in favor of the hot, new, summer book being advertised on social media?
In addition to analyzing superb writing, students gain another rhetorical skill by reading the classics. They acquire an epistemological viewpoint that extends past the limited horizon of the present. By grasping the sweep of time, students empower themselves to use allusion. They are also able to understand social and racial injustice, the all-important post-modern concerns, in different times and places. They can compare the racial injustice in The Merchant of Venice to the same in To Kill a Mockingbird, then compare both to the present. They can contrast the social injustice of Romeo and Juliet with that in Pride and Prejudice. Students will no longer find themselves at the center of the universe, yet commonalities will abound, allowing them to join the past with the present for deeper rhetorical substance.
However, the argument is not for exclusivity. Students should read contemporary works. After all, every classic was once contemporary. Who knows what beautiful gems lay at our feet, waiting to be discovered, relished, and protected. What can, and should, be sought is a continuity of literature. As Shakespeare influenced Goethe, and Goethe influenced later Romantics, so too is current literature informed by the voices of the past. Read new books. Read diverse books. And read the classics. These are not mutually exclusive options. Through the songs of the West’s great voices, the contemporary melody of language, of rhetoric, is amplified, not diminished.
Western civilization need not descend into an Orwellian future. It need not allow fake news and fake teachers to besmirch the humanities. The West was built upon an intellectual rock – it was built upon the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The future of this civilization will need bloggers, orators, and even advocacy journalists, but it will not need hacks. It needs students to be intellectually armed to the teeth, wielding their ability to read, write, and think. From these students, new Shakespeares will emerge, new Twains. They will look different, and be more glorious, pushing the bounds of human potential, forging new treasure, producing new miracles of art and science. However, this future will only be attained by teaching what matters most. Grammar. Logic. Rhetoric – an educational foundation extendable to all areas of human knowledge. The time for the trivium’s resurgence is at hand.
Baskin, S. “The Gift of Failure.” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smores-and-more/201112/the-gift-failure. Accessed on 12 November 2017.
Bragg, Melvyn. “The Medieval University.” Audio blog post. In Our Time: Culture. 17 March 2011.
CollegeBoard. “Writing: A Ticket to Work… Or a Ticket Out.” Report of The National Commission on Writing, http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf. Accessed on 29 November 2017.
Davis, M. “What’s Wrong with Diversity?” NCTE, http://www2.ncte.org/blog/2016/09/whats-wrong-diversity/. Accessed on 3 December 2017.
Estill, L. and Johnson, E. “Fun International Facts About Shakespeare.” British Council, 2015, https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/fun-international-facts-about-shakespeare. Accessed on 9 December 2017.
Joseph, Sister M. The Trivium:The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002.
Moore, K. “Study: Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses Billions.” http://www.almainternational.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/poor_writing_skills.92104339.pdf. Accessed on 20 November 2017.
NCES. “The Condition of Education 2016.” NCES 2016-144. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED565888.pdf. Accessed on 01 December 2017.
“Postmodernism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5 February 2015, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/. Acessed on 22 November 2017.
Rose, J. D. “Diverse Perspectives on the Groupthink Theory.” Emerging Leadership Journeys, 2011, 4, 1: 33–40.
Stevenson, J. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to English Literature. New York: Penguin, 2007.
Uren, N. and Stagnitti, K. “Pretend play, social competence and involvement in children aged 5–7 years: The concurrent validity of the Child-Initiated Pretend Play Assessment.” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 2009, 56: 33–40.
Upah, K. “All-American Boys, All-American Teachers: Teaching What Matters Most in 2017.” NCTE, http://www2.ncte.org/blog/2017/12/american-boys-american-teachers-teaching-matters-2017/. Accessed on 3 December 2017.
Upah, K. Light Bulb Moments. https://www.lightbulbmomentsblog.com/. Accessed 5 December 2017.
Woolfolk, A. Educational Psychology. Boston: Pearson, 2013.
Young, V. A. et al. Other People’s English. New York: Teachers College Press, 2014.