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Trivium Pursuit

It has been over a century and a half since America turned away from the classical trivium and followed John Dewey down the dead-end road to Progressive Education. It is no exaggeration to state that this radical experiment has brought us by degrees to the brink of cultural destruction.

There have been voices of dissent along the way. Among these was Dorothy Sayers, a colleague of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien at Oxford. In 1948 she penned an essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning”, which called for a return to the ancient trivium model of education.

In 1991 that essay became the inspiration for a book by Pastor Doug Wilson entitled “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.” That book in turn spawned the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, which has prospered under the steady hand of its Executive Director, Patch Blakey. Patch laid bare his vision for education in a recent interview with MythBusters.

1. We’ve heard a lot about the Trivium in recent years, Patch. What is the Trivium? Is that a biblical concept?

ACCS employs Dorothy Sayers’ version of the Trivium, which includes three aspects: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These three stages not only define the tools of learning, they also are employed as the means of educating students consistent with their developmental stage of learning.

Pastor Randy Booth wrote an excellent essay entitled, “Borrowing the Truth” (available on the ACCS website, under Classis Archives 1997), in which he states, “Our primary concern should be: is it biblical? The Scriptures are our only rule of faith and life, not the Greeks or modern pedagogues. All truth claims must pass the biblical standard…I believe the trivium model of learning passes the test, as far as it goes. The Greeks did not start or end with the fear of God–they therefore ended in failure. Nevertheless, they did get part of it right. The trivium model is comprised of three phases of learning: 1) grammar, 2) dialectic, and 3) rhetoric. These are but new labels for the biblical concepts of: 1) knowledge, 2) understanding, and 3) wisdom.”

2. That’s a very helpful explanation of the trivium, Patch. And thanks for sharing with us today. Can we start out by talking about the ACCS? What exactly is it, when and why was it founded?

Thank you, Dennis. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be interviewed by you, and to be able to talk with you about ACCS.

ACCS stands for the Association of Classical & Christian Schools. It was established in 1993, and is a 501 c(3) organization. ACCS grew out of the national response to a book published in 1991 entitled Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson. This book described the educational philosophy instituted by Logos School in Moscow, Idaho – the philosophy being an attempt to follow the pattern set down by Dorothy Sayers in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning. The overwhelming response to the publication of this book made it apparent that an association would have to be formed to handle all the requests for help and information. The Association, formed in 1993, began to host national conferences, giving rise to even more interest, and has grown steadily since.

3. What do you mean by a classical, Christian education?

We address “Christian” first because we are first, and foremost, Christian schools. Our understanding of all things, including all things pertaining to education, is shaped by Christian truth. Thus, to acquire a sufficient understanding of classical education, one must first be able to view it from a Christian perspective. While in other ages and other times, the “Christian” in classical education was assumed, today it is not so. Given the present state of affairs, we believe it is important to clearly spell out the Christian presuppositions that underlie classical and Christian education and the trivium.

The ACCS Confession of Faith defines the scope and elements of Christian truth individuals or organizations must affirm to be considered for membership in the ACCS. We see no need to add a second definition here as the Confession is sufficient. However, we do want to emphasize certain principles inherent in the Confession of Faith as they relate to education.

God is the sovereign source of all being and truth. As a consequence, the principles by which believers live are squarely opposed to the principles by which unbelievers live. The Scriptures are clear that we are to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Thus, to provide a God-centered and truly Christian education, it is necessary to break completely free from the educational philosophies that surround us. Christianity is an entire system of thought that shapes our perspective and interpretation of everything in the world. It requires that we present all ideas and concepts as part of a larger whole defined by Christian truth because there is no aspect of creation that does not reflect His glory and truth.

From its beginning, ACCS has advocated as its definition of “classical” the form of education that Miss Sayers described in her 1947 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, and subsequently popularized in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson. Both of these authors advance the pedagogical methodology of the Trivium, which includes three aspects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Further, ACCS advocates, along with Miss Sayers and Mr. Wilson that children tend to grow through developmental stages that generally coincide with the three areas of the Trivium. The Poll-parrot stage in which young children like to memorize and chant various bits of information coincides with the grammar stage of the Trivium. As children grow into their pre- and early teens, they become more argumentative and questioning; this is called the Pert stage, and coincides with the dialectic aspect of the Trivium. In their mid to late teens, children seem to be more vocal and expressive; this is called the Poetic stage, and conforms to the area of rhetoric. Children that are taught with these developmental stages in mind are receiving an education using classical methodology: the trivium.

But there is another aspect to this, and that is to teach children their Western heritage through reading the great works of the West. These books provide the classical content. Such books are necessary to appreciate the arguments that have formed the way we think. This is so that our children can adequately provide the Christian antithesis to the humanistic arguments of our heritage that are still being advocated by our godless culture today.

Included in our definition of classical is instruction in either Latin or Greek. As Douglas Wilson points out in Repairing the Ruins, “About eighty percent of English comes from Latin and Greek, with over fifty percent of our vocabulary coming from the Latin.” Studying Latin helps a student understand grammar, helps them become more proficient at learning many modern languages (such as Spanish and French), and trains them “in the essentials of the scientific method — observation, comparison, and generalization.” Studying Greek does much the same and also helps equip student to read the New Testament in the original language.

ACCS recognizes that there are other definitions of what constitutes “classical” education which may have their strengths. Whereas ACCS is not necessarily antagonistic to these other definitions, it does not seek to embrace all of these other schools of thought. ACCS willingly acknowledges that it has a defined understanding of what constitutes a classical education and seeks to encourage that concept without apology.

4. How does the classical trivium approach differ from the typical Christian school education?

Sadly, many Christian schools simply follow the methods and content of the public schools, but add on a Bible class or a worship assembly to the school curriculum. If you were to ask a board member, administrator, or teacher at these schools what principles of education they followed in their classrooms and curriculum, I would surmise that many would not be able to provide a clear, concise and simple answer because they do not follow any specific principle of education from which their pedagogy follows. Classical Christian schools on the other hand, have clearly defined principles that they employ in the classroom that are consistent with the children’s level of development. ACCS schools also strive to have a fully integrated curriculum that begins with Christ as Lord in all subjects.

5. How about you – how did you get mixed up in all of this?

My education and experience equipped me to be a U.S. Navy Captain with 23 years of service. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, and a Master of Arts degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. I served as commanding officer of USS Patterson (FF1061) and my final tour of duty was as Engineer Officer on USS Enterprise (CVN 65). During my tour on Enterprise, I helped start a classical Christian school in Hampton, Virginia. My wife and I learned about classical Christian education from reading Douglas Wilson’s book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, and decided that was the education we wanted for our children. Up until that time we had homeschooled or used private Christian schools to educate our children. I retired from the Navy so we could move to Moscow, Idaho, to enroll our children in Logos School. My first year in Moscow, I worked as a part-time janitor at Logos School where I learned of ACCS and their need for an executive director. Because of my administrative experience as an officer in the Navy, I applied for the position and, in the providence of God, was ultimately selected for the job in June 1996. I have been pleased to serve in that position since.

6. Are you saying that classical Christian education using the trivium is really just a return to the education of a former day? Where exactly did America get off the track educationally?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the Trivium has been around for over the past 1500 years. However, if someone were to assert (as they have) that ACCS is not following the exact model of the Trivium employed in the Middle Ages, we would agree. Douglas Wilson gave an excellent talk on this topic at the ACCS conference in Austin in 2008, in which he affirms that ACCS uses the model of the Trivium with the added observations made by Dorothy Sayers in her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. Douglas Wilson’s talk was entitled, “Defending Sayers’ Insights,” and may be obtained from

To answer the second half of the question, the simple response is that American schooling started veering away from its classical and Christian foundations in the 19th century with the establishment of the common schools. Many Christians were involved in the promotion and establishment of what has since become the public school system. However, there were some Christian leaders who clearly saw the threat that such a system posed. A.A. Hodge, the head of Princeton University late in the 19th century, made this observation with regard to the public school system, “I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.”

For more information on this subject, read Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning (Douglas Wilson) and The Messianic Character of American Education (R.J. Rushdoony).

7. Is there any biblical warrant for public education? What is the problem?

The Bible assigns the primary responsibility for the education of children to parents, and specifically to fathers. The education is mandated to be one in which the child receives a full-orbed, Christ-centered education, as is made clear by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-7), Paul (Ephesians 6:4), and of course, by Jesus Himself (Matthew 28:19-20).

John Milton Gregory, who wrote the book, The Seven Laws of Teaching, once stated in a speech that he thought the government had a vested interest in the education of its citizenship. I would agree, but only in a very qualified way. A nation can only survive and prosper if its citizens have a solid understanding of and faithful obedience to God’s laws (Deuteronomy 28: 1-2, 15). But the actual education of the populace is not a responsibility of government, but of parents as stated above. The government needs to get out of the education business and leave that to parents. The government needs to provide a safe environment for Christian parents to fulfill their God-mandates responsibilities.

The problem with the government’s public school system is that because of its stated commitment to pluralism, no one religion is recognized to have pre-eminence over any other. This means that in the government’s eyes, all religions are supposed to be equally true, which has the net effect of affirming that no religion is true because they all have contradictory truth statements. However, as has been increasingly evident, the public school system is tolerant of just about any religion other than Christianity, and this is because Christ claims to be Lord of all (Matthew 29:18) and the Scriptures claim to be the only infallible word of God (2 Timothy 3:16).

8. Would you say it is sin for Christians to place their children in government schools?

While the Bible doesn’t state anywhere explicitly that students are not to be instructed in government schools, the Bible emphatically requires that children are to receive a 24/7 education with the Triune God at it’s center (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). The Bible also says to the one who knows to do what is right, but does not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:17), and that whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). It seems inconsistent for Christians, who say that they are committed to obeying the Bible, to have their children trained in a system that denies the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the government’s public school system does, and then assert that they are doing so in faith, especially when they read in Scripture that the education children are to receive is to be all-encompassing and centered on God’s word.

The argument that many Christian parents give that they are sending their children to be “salt and light” in the government’s public school system doesn’t hold water. Most children have neither the training nor the moral fiber to be “salt and light” in such a spiritually antagonistic environment. These parents are simply abdicating their God-given responsibility to raise up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord by giving their children over to be educated by a system that at best considers Christ irrelevant, and at worst denies His sovereign authority over all creation (Matthew 28:18).

If a Christian parent were to ask a public school teacher in his classroom to explain the basis upon which he asserts that 2+2 equals 4, the teacher would more than likely respond that “it just does.” How can this be consistent in a universe created by chance where every event is only a chemical reaction and in which there is supposedly no ultimate truth? The public school system, by its very nature (which is agnostic at best), is unable to answer any of the ultimate questions that men ask and that a good education should answer, such as “Who am I and why am I here?”

9. How would somebody go about starting a classical, Christian school based on the trivium model in their community?

I would encourage them to obtain a copy of the ACCS School Start-Up Notebook from ACCS, and read it carefully. It contains a lot of helpful information from men who have been directly involved in starting classical Christian schools themselves. The Start-Up Notebook is available on the ACCS website at, under the tab labeled “Start a School.”




Portland Oregonian, April 1, 2007

In A Review By Dennis Oliver Woods, Headmaster

King’s Way Classical Academy


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Susan Nielsen’s fascinating analysis of what’s missing from the high school curriculum concluded, “Please teach students how to think, communicate and run a household.”  The results of her informal research study appeared in the April 1, 2007 edition of the Portland, Oregonian.

MYTH:  If we did’nt have public school, lower-income families wouldn’t have access to education.

Reader responses were a plaintive cry for the classical approach to education that existed in this country before John Dewey introduced his progressive model over a century ago.  The words “logic” and “rhetoric” did not appear in the comments.  However, readers were clearly describing these basic building blocks of the ancient classical trivium.

We were treated to remarks like, “…”this class would be called, maybe Critical Thinking.  It would show how people make fallacious arguments…to advance their points and manipulate the individual into a certain line of thinking.”  And, “The class would have them defend several viewpoints on controversial issues.”

The Joke’s On You America

Ironically, the report appeared on April Fool’s Day.  Ironic because Americans have surely been fooled by John Dewey into substituting a pale imitation of education for the real McCoy.  Progressive education remains the dominant model in the pubic schools to this day.

Under the older classical model, students were not only taught isolated subjects and technical skills, they were steeped in what Dorothy Sayers called “the lost tools of learning.”  Mastering the tools of the trivium prepared them for a lifetime of learning.  Beyond just learning to make a living, they were taught to live.  Instead of asking “what can I do with this information” they asked “what can this information do with me.”

These were the tools that produced the intellectual giants of a bygone era.  Virtually all of America’s founding generation were educated classically.  These were men and women who could think critically and communicate their thinking to others.  In those days it was called a “liberal arts” education – liberal as in “liberty.”  What was this mysterious trivium?

The Classical Trivium

According to Miss Sayers famous 1947 essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”, the trivium “consisted of three parts:  Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.”  Bear in mind, that Dorothy Sayers was the intellectual sparring partner of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein at Oxford before World War II.  She was a scholar and an expert on the Middle Ages.  Her essay may be read in its entirely at

She went on to explain that “modern education concentrates on ‘teaching subjects,’ leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along.”  By contrast, medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.”

In practice, we can think of the Trivium from two perspectives.  As presented above, it is a tool for dissecting a particular subject.  First, we master the “grammar” of the subject, its basic facts, definitions and guiding principles.  Second, we apply the tool of dialectic interaction, or logic, to interpret and understand the basic facts.  This includes propaganda analysis as well as formal logic.  Finally, we apply the interpreted facts and share them with others in written and spoken communication.  This encompasses the skills of declamation and debate.

The trivium also provides a paradigm for three stages of child development.  Miss Sayers called these “the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic – the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty.”   During the primary or Poll-Parrot years, children love to memorize.  They soak up grammar, languages, and other miscellaneous facts like a sponge.  In middle school the child has arrived at the Pert stage of contradicting, answering back and questioning everything.  The wise instructor will channel these natural tendencies into formal training in logic or dialectic.  At last we reach the Poetic stage where self-expression comes naturally and may be groomed by the rhetorical arts.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

The story of how and why American education discarded the classical trivium is long and somewhat complex – but fascinating nonetheless.  Curiously, it began in Europe with the devastating defeat of Germany at the hands of Napoleon at the Battle of Jena in 1806.  Jena was a university town and the intellectual counterattack from the nearby University of Jena proved to be overwhelming.  Its effects are still being felt in American education halfway around the globe.

According to John Taylor Gatto, New York Teacher of the Year in 1989, it was a professor of Kantian philosophy at Jena who shook the world with his famous “Address to the German Nation”.  In this address, Johann Gottleibe Fichte called for a system of compulsory schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders – no more battlefield routs.  The goal was obedient soldiers, and citizens who thought alike about major issues.

The method recommended by Fichte would divide larger ideas up into school subjects and short class periods punctuated by a horn.  True learning, critical thinking, and motivation would thus be constantly interrupted and fragmented.  Students would simply parrot back what they had been told in objective tests.  Such students might sound educated, but their ability to think for themselves and communicate was severely retarded.


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It was this system that produced the German propaganda and war machines of the 20th century.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque tells the story.  That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that the second world war was the inevitable product of good schooling.  The goal of the German or Prussian system was not to provide intellectual training, but to condition children to obedience and life in collective society.

The system was transplanted to America by a cadre of young, impressionable, idealists who traveled to Germany for doctoral studies in the first half of the 19th Century.  One of their number, Horace Mann finally persuaded Massachusetts notorious “Know-Nothing” legislature to adopt the system in 1852.  Over the next 50 years all 50 states followed the lead of the New Englanders.  That was the remarkable result of the visionary John Dewey operating from his Educational Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.  Over the years Dewey flooded the American school system with disciples of what he had renamed “progressive education.”

When Will We Ever Learn?

Case Closed:  And that brief history brings us full-circle to today.  What is the likelihood that the classical method will be returned to our public school system, you ask?  The odds are approximately zero.  As Dorothy Sayers noted over 60 years ago in her 1947 essay:  “…it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.  Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment.”

For they amount to this:  that if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom…we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.”

Dennis Oliver Woods (M.Ed.) is headmaster of King’s Way Classical Academy, a 100% web-based school for grades 7-12.  The campus address is  He is the author of Keys to the Classics.