The Classical Trivium in Contemporary Contexts: Receptions and Re-formations of an Ancient Model of Schooling

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Institution Granting Degree

Bowling Green State University

Cedarville University School or Department

English, Literature, and Modern Languages

First Advisor

Bruce L. Edwards, Jr.

Second Advisor

Philip Peek

Third Advisor

Sue Carter Simmons


Education, literature, trivium, classical education, rhetoric, language arts, Christian education


This study examined contemporary receptions of the trivium --a language arts curriculum developed by Isocrates and Quintilian to teach grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. In late antiquity, Martianus Capella codified the trivium as the initial three subjects of the seven liberal arts of the Medieval period. The trivium of antiquity prepared students to be virtuous public rhetoricians.

At the end of the twentieth century, interest in the trivium appears in what I called "traditional" and "alternative" sites of schooling. I argued that there is relatively little interest in the trivium as a pedagogical program in the field of rhetoric and composition despite the recent revival of interest in classical rhetoric for composition studies in "traditional" schools. Arguments over the past twenty years for using the trivium in these schools lacked common pedagogical goals, lacked a shared understanding of what the trivium "was," and lacked detailed curriculum proposals.

A greater interest in the trivium exists in the "alternative" K-12 schools of the growing classical Christian education movement. Douglas Wilson, an evangelical Protestant pastor, has led this movement since opening his trivium-based Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, in 1981. Wilson modeled his curriculum on a proposal for teaching the trivium issued in 1947 by Dorothy Sayers, an English medieval scholar and Christian apologist. I examined uses of Sayers' and Wilson's trivium in schools belonging to the Association of Classical Christian Schools, in homeschools, and at Internet tutoring sites which aide homeschooling parents.

I concluded that the trivium developed by Sayers and Wilson maintains Isocrates' and Quintilian's pedagogical design and intent better than the trivium proposals made for "traditional" schools. However, the parochial emphasis of Sayers' and Wilson's trivium warrants calling it a "reformed" classical trivium, which I suggested would likely appeal only to those who share an interest in a specifically religious and academic education. Yet the successful working-model of the classical trivium found in classical Christian schools is an instructive site of inquiry for rhetoric and composition scholars and mainstream educators who wish to study how a classical curriculum can be used for teaching the language arts today.