Classical Education and the Trivium

A classical education teaches children the art of learning and trains their minds to think well.

Classical education has a long and distinguished history, beginning in ancient times, maturing in the Middle Ages, and becoming prominent in this country until the early 20th century, when progressive, child-centered education became the dominant model. Classical education is not, however, a nostalgic desire to return to the past. It has endured so long and is now enjoying a renaissance precisely because it is adaptive and equips students with the skills and knowledge to go forward and live interesting, thoughtful, and productive lives.

Classical education is language intensive; it is knowledge-centered rather than child-centered; it trains the mind to collect and analyze information and to draw conclusions based on that information; it demands self-discipline and instills virtue (the ability to do what is right despite one’s baser inclinations); it produces intelligent, literate, curious young adults who can read, write, calculate, think, understand, solve problems, and follow through on a wide range of interests. It requires a student to examine moral and ethical issues. A classical education is multicultural in the best sense of the word. Because it takes history as its organizing principle, students learn the place of their lives, families, and communities in the broad landscape of human existence and achievement. It imparts the skills and passion for thinking and learning that allow a person to teach herself for the rest of her life. Classical education is systematic and rigorous; it has purpose, goals, and a method to reach those goals.

Classical education rests on the concept of the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—not as subjects, although these subjects are studied, but as the structure of every subject and discipline.


Grammar is the foundation of a subject—the collection of its parts and the mechanics of how they work.


Logic is the organization of these parts into a whole and an understanding of the relationships among the parts.


Rhetoric is the ability to apply the foundational knowledge and logical understanding of a subject purposefully and creatively to solve a problem, express an opinion with clarity or create something new.

The Trivium

Every subject we attempt to learn, at any time in our lives, has its grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages, from reading and math to gardening and law, to music and auto mechanics.

The Trivium also parallels the maturation of the mind from childhood to adulthood. Young children are able to memorize huge amounts of information, from the alphabet to TV jingles to names of constellations. (How many of us still hum a little bit of the alphabet song in our heads when we want to know what letter comes after K, or silently review the “i before e” rule when writing, or start thinking “30 days hath September…” when we want to quickly remember how many days there are in June?) Children want to give a name to each thing in their world. This is the grammar stage. The middle school student chafes at having to learn facts for their own sake, becomes argumentative, wants to look at the big picture and wants to know why things are the way they are and work the way they do. This is the logic stage. The high school student feels compelled to express thoughts, opinions, and individuality through whatever means are available, whether it be through forceful writing or purple hair. This is the rhetoric stage.

Classical education always has integrated into a whole what various educational movements have tried to isolate and treat separately. The “back to basics” movement gets stuck in the grammar stage. Reading, writing, and math skills, along with a knowledge of the facts of science, history, and geography are essential, but are of limited use without an understanding of how they are related and how they can be expressed and applied. Critical and higher order thinking skills are the essence of the logic stage, but many would skip over the required foundational knowledge, and the tools to acquire that knowledge, about which one is expected to think critically. Creativity and self-expression are buzzwords today, but too many children have no tools with which to be creative other than personal feelings and limited experiences. The rhetoric stage is defined by creativity and self-expression, but from a foundation of knowledge and understanding.

This brief description of classical education neither does justice to the concept nor adequately conveys the freedom within a framework that it allows. However, not only is this the education we want for our children, it’s the education we wish that we had received.

We recommend that everyone read Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which inspired the modern interest in Classical Education.

Additional Resources

  • Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning
  • Stanley Fish’s Op-Ed on Classical Education
  • The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise
  • Designing your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist
  • Classical Education by Gene Veith and Andrew Kern
  • Norms and Nobility by David Hicks
  • The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis