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The Post-Trivium Years: Wrestling with Meaningful Ideas

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #92, 2010.

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Diane Lockman


Embracing an authentic classical education is much easier than you may have been led to believe. Think of it broadly as a two-step process. From birth to somewhere during the preteen years, you’ll simultaneously teach the three simple skills of the ancient trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Upon substantial mastery of the trivium, you’ll move on to step two of an authentic classical education, the post-trivium years, where you will supervise your teen in the exploration of ideas within the confines of their unique interests and your family’s preferred themes.

The task before you is quite simple:

  1. teach three skills, then
  2. facilitate the exploration of big ideas.

In this article, we’ll examine step two of the process, where you thoughtfully expose and guide your teen in the evaluation of ideas.

The Christian Paideia

You may recall that the Greek “paideia” is the foundation of an authentic classical education. Webster defines paideia as the training of the physical and mental faculties in order to produce an enlightened mature outlook harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development. To the ancient Greeks, learning was the path to a higher nature through the exploration of abstract concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty, with the expectation that such examination would lead to noble character, gracious behavior, enlightened minds, and enriched society. The Greeks were searching for knowledge that would transform their culture, but remember this was a pagan society. Man is limited in his knowledge; he needs inspiration. The Greek paideia is not enough.

Most contemporary Christians cannot read Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, so you might be surprised to discover that the Apostle Paul uses the word paideia at least seven times in his letters to the Hebrews, the Ephesians, and to his disciple Timothy. Trained with a Jewish adaptation of authentic classical education, Paul defines the word paideia as “discipline” or “instruction in righteousness.” Paul knew that the Greeks had a good idea, but their educational philosophy lacked one critical component: the inspiration of the indwelling Spirit of God. True education is a transformational process of growing in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

Jesus gives us the perfect example of what this looks like in the Gospels. Like the one-on-one tutor relationship established between the Socratic elder and the Greek youth, Jesus lives with his disciples. (By the way, “disciple” is a derivative of the word “discipline,” which is the English translation of paideia.) In the course of everyday life, Jesus conducts an ongoing dialogue about big ideas:

  • Ideas about God
  • Ideas about man
  • Ideas about man’s relationship to God
  • Ideas about man’s relationship to man
  • Ideas about life
  • Ideas about death

In short, Jesus instructs his disciples by asking them questions about the fundamental realities of life. Sometimes he provides immediate answers, but more often than not, he allows them to wrestle with the questions through life experiences, parables, and more dialogue. Like Socrates before him, Jesus knew the value of dialogue or conversation in learning. He has always sought relationship, and in that ongoing intimate relationship, the student learns more and more.

So what do the post-trivium years look like in an authentic classical education? They look like the Socratic model that Jesus followed with his disciples. As parents, we supervise the dialogue that our teens are having with the classics and with other authorities like university professors. We narrate. We write. We disagree. We agree. We listen. We discuss the big ideas on a daily basis. We allow the dialogue to drive the instruction. Sometimes we end up going off on tangents, but that’s okay because we are wrestling with knowledge. Every minute is an opportunity for learning as parent and teen engage in an ongoing dialogue about the fundamental realities of life.

The Western Canon

So how do you, as the parent/teacher/ guide in this relationship, decide what fundamental realities you want to explore? You could make a list of abstract concepts like truth, goodness, and beauty and then assign them to your teen. That approach is too ambiguous for me because it lacks historical context. The Apostle Paul, as well as Jesus, used the Torah and the Prophets as the authoritative starting point for ideas. If you are a Christian, surely the Bible will significantly influence your post-trivium discussions, perhaps even as the cornerstone of all thought. Even classically educated non-Christians should explore the depths of Scripture for the valuable lessons therein. But there is more to read than Scripture. Literate 21st-century thinkers are extremely fortunate to have access to an even broader base of ideas as expressed in what is generally known as the “Western Canon.”

The English word canon derives from the Greek word that means “measuring rod” or “standard.” The “Western Canon” is a collection of books, art, and music that have been most influential in shaping Western culture. In effect, these works are the standard by which Westerners live. There is no distinct origin of the canon; rather, the Western Canon grows over time as men and women of learning agree that certain works of literature and fine arts are timeless in worth because they deal with the essential themes of life. These “classic” works represent the inherited body of knowledge, beliefs, and achievements of Western civilization. They are rich in timeless ideas; as such, they will be the backbone of your post-trivium dialogue as you seek to guide your teen in interpreting meaning for the purpose of influencing his culture.

Why should you study the classics? Belief drives action, and the achievements of our civilization were not revealed in an historical vacuum. There is a unique, symbiotic relationship within the works of the Western Canon. In other words, classic works inspire classic works. For instance, Michelangelo painted the fabulous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. You may recall the graceful, gripping image of God’s finger reaching out to man’s finger. This idea of God reaching out to man surely arises from the Biblical Canon of Scripture. However, what you may not know unless you have seen the entire masterpiece is that lining the walls of the Sistine Chapel are images of the New Testament Apostles and Old Testament Prophets intermingled with mythological pagan goddesses! Although shocking to see religious syncretism manifested during such a late date as the Renaissance, the images provide a wealth of ideas from ancient Greek and Roman mythology as well as Christian classics. The influence of earlier oral, written, and artistic works is apparent and provides a rich basis for meaningful discussion.

Another example of how the classics influence each other is the idea of the dome. Brunelleschi, widely recognized as an engineering genius, gained inspiration for the glorious dome that caps the Duomo in Florence, Italy from the ancient Roman author, Vitruvius, who wrote The Ten Books on Architecture. Subsequent architects marveled at Brunelleschi’s Duomo and created their own masterpieces like the ornate dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the majestic dome of the U. S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

The perpetual influence of the Western Canon is apparent in literature, medicine, military tactics, law, and countless other areas of knowledge. Dante and Shakespeare pattern much of their poetry on the oral verse of the Homeric bards of ancient Greece. Dante even includes Vergil, the author of the Roman epic The Aeneid, as a character in his trilogy. The Hippocratic oath that contemporary medical students take derives from the ancient Western anatomist and physician, Hippocrates. Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the human body was influenced by the early writings and understanding of Hippocrates and his disciples. The modern military battalion of the U. S. Armed Forces has roots in the ancient Greek phalanx, which influenced the structure of the Roman legion. Finally, our form of government, known as a “democratic republic,” is a fused adaptation of the Greek idea of democracy and the Roman idea of a republic.

Your Personal Preferences

Humans love to argue, so there has always been debate about what works constitute the definitive Western Canon. You may not agree with the value of every book or piece of fine art that people call “classic.” Practically speaking, you’ll never have time to explore every classic, so your responsibility is to choose those classics that best meet the vision of your family. What essentials from the inherited knowledge of Western civilization will you study? Are there certain themes that you and your spouse feel you must cover?

My husband and I require study of certain historical and literary classics from ancient Israel, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval Europe, and colonial America. We are especially concerned that our kids have a solid foundation in the development of Western thought as it relates to freedom, law, and government. You may be more concerned with other abstract ideas that would drive the selection of content.

How can you tailor the content to the unique abilities and interests of your teen? Since there is such a broad wealth of classic literature in the Western Canon, you can customize the curricula to each child in your family. Your teen may have a propensity to use his hands in building machines. Why have him read a boring textbook when, like Brunelleschi, he can read the ancient thoughts of the architect Vetruvius? You may have a teen who is artistically inclined; select content from the great masters of the Renaissance to study, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and da Vinci. Study the works, imitate the works, and read definitive biographies about the artists. Do you have a future thespian in your home? Let him plumb the depths of works of Homer, Vergil, Shakespeare, and other poets. The potential for customization is only limited by your vision of your family themes and your teen’s interests.

I suggest you create a mock high-school transcript to guide your selections. Once you have the big picture for exploration of ideas, you need to squeeze it into a format that would satisfy college admissions officers.

To illustrate, my kids received a full credit for a course that I called “Greek Civilization.” We read a modern survey to get the historical context of the ideas that were expressed in the ancient histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. By the way, we only read selections from the ancient documents. We also read an ancient biographer, Plutarch, on selected famous politicians from ancient Greece. Basically, I decided what classics I wanted them to study, then I created a name for the course. Become familiar with what your preferred colleges require, then adjust your transcript accordingly to reflect what they actually studied.

Finally, as you are establishing a long vision of content, you need to decide who will supervise your teen in the daily discipline of tackling meaningful ideas. Will you or your spouse assume the primary role, like Jesus did? Or will you hire a tutor like Socrates to fill in the gaps in your own availability and knowledge? Online courses and dual-credit university classes can supplement the daily dialogue that occurs in the home.

If you are leading the charge, you’ll need to construct your first course. Set aside time to research the Western Canon for selected sources, refresh your own understanding by preparing a survey of what you will cover, and create research and writing prompts that lean toward “why” questions as opposed to “what” questions. Dedicate weekly time to stop and discuss what you are both learning. Have fun as you wrestle with the meaningful ideas about the fundamental realities of life!

Diane Lockman, author of Trivium Mastery, practiced nine years as a CPA before cheerfully coming home to be with Meredith and Connor until they were old enough for school. When Meredith was in first grade, Diane heard about homeschooling. She looked into it and a few weeks later, persuaded David to let her pull the kids out of school. Diane is the founder of The Classical Scholar (classicalscholar.com), a site for teaching other homeschool parents how to teach in the classical style. When she’s not reading, writing, managing the kids’ education, or teaching live classes, Diane enjoys sewing period costumes.


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