The Trivium: Does it Really Work

The Trivium: Does it Really Work? by Patch Blakey

Those who have read either Dorothy Sayers’ essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, or Doug Wilson’s book, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, have probably become excited about the method of pedagogy that both Sayers and Wilson urge parents to pursue in the education of their offspring. At the heart of this classical Christian method of instruction is the Trivium, the actual tools of learning that both Sayers and Wilson refer to. Those familiar with the Trivium are aware that it incorporates three specific, yet co-dependent stages of teaching. The first is the grammar stage in which the specific pieces of knowledge about a given subject are learned. The second is the dialectic stage in which the logical relationships of the individual pieces of knowledge are apprehended. In the final stage, rhetoric, the student is trained to communicate clearly the knowledge learned in the first two stages. While going through these three stages, the student learns how to study any subject: learn the basis of the discipline, learn how they fit logically, and learn to clearly express this knowledge.

It all seems so simple and obvious, yet it is not the pedagogical diet that most of us have been fed in our own education. We don’t have any first hand data to use in making a comparative analysis. As a result, some questions may linger as to the viability of such a system of education. Who wants their child to invest twelve precious years of his short life and find out afterwards that it was a bad investment? So, is the Trivium applied consistently in any discipline today with success?

The U.S. Navy uses the Trivium in training their nuclear propulsion operators, the officers and enlisted men who operate and maintain the nuclear propulsion systems found on our submarines, aircraft carriers, and nuclear cruisers. The Navy does not use the term “Trivium” anywhere in its nuclear training program, and it may not be conscious that the method it employs is consistent with the Trivium. But nonetheless, the Navy’s methodology follows the Trivium at every point.

The Navy begins the instruction of its nuclear operators at Nuclear Power School (NPS) with basics courses in mathematics, electricity, chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics all related to the theory of design and operation of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion systems. This mirrors the grammar stage. The basic information initially learned is then brought together in practical classes on the design of Navy nuclear propulsion plants and integrated plant operations. This would comport to the dialectic stage of the Trivium. The final process which coincides with the rhetoric stage is an extensive comprehensive written examination in which all of the information is brought to bear to respond to a wide range of specific and practical questions related to the safe operation of Navy nuclear propulsion systems.

Reinforcing the basic training learned at NPS is hands-on training at a nuclear prototype, a nuclear propulsion plant in a near-actual shipboard environment, but landlocked. At the prototype, all of the information previously learned in general is now applied to learning a specific nuclear propulsion plant. The students study each component system of the overall propulsion system, learning to draw it out in detail, explaining its operational procedures, parameters and limitations, and actually standing several watches on each subsystem with a qualified operator. Integrated plant operations are then studied in which the student learns how all of these subsystems function together and how a change in operating parameters in one can affect the proper operation of the others. Finally, an extensive comprehensive written examination is given followed by an intensely demanding oral board where the student must answer questions presented by a board of senior qualified operators in a variety of operational scenarios.

But it doesn’t end here. he students who successfully complete Nuclear Power School and prototype training then report to their respective ships and begin the process all over again, but for the specific propulsion system on the ship to which they are assigned. With each reassignment, the process is repeated with the nuclear trained officer or enlisted man applying the tools of learning that he learned in NPS.

The Trivium embodies the tools of learning. The U.S. Navy, in its nuclear propulsion training program, has built into it the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages found in the Trivium. The Navy uses this method of training because it has proven its success for decades.

The Trivium works.