Could an Ancient Education Model Save Our Kids From Robots and Redundancy?

CC BY 2.0. Boris Thaser

A return to the distant past and a re-adoption of the Trivium might be the answer to our society's academic woes.

In a departure from his usual environmental rants, George Monbiot has tackled the subject of education in an article titled, “In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant.” Monbiot makes the argument that children need to be as creative, artistic, and un-robot-like as possible in order to compete in an increasingly automated world.

The current school model, Monbiot says, is outdated. It is still based on the 19th century, when the industrial revolution had an insatiable need for obedient, conformist factory workers – people who would “sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards.”

Monbiot proposes alternate educational models that allow children’s natural curiosity and love of learning to flourish, without crushing it beneath test scores and inert facts. He cites forest schools, game models, inquiry teams, student-driven curricula, etc., as viable alternatives to conventional education.

I agree with Monbiot. I think that the way in which schools are set up puts energetic, highly-physical children at a serious disadvantage. They tend to learn best in ways that do not conform to the rules of the classroom, which means a constant barrage of reprimands from teachers and a soul-crushing sense of never living up to expectations.

In pursuing alternative education models, however, I do fear the loss of scholarly academics – something that is already lacking greatly. In my children's schools, it seems that the more 'fun' learning becomes, the less substance exists in the lessons. Perhaps what we need is a return to the past, to times long before the Industrial Revolution, when the focus of education was to provide young people with the tools of learning.

This term comes from a speech delivered by author Dorothy Sayers at Oxford University in 1947. In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers argued that the reinstatement of the Trivium, a Classical education model, would do a much better job at preparing young people for the world than the current model – an argument that can still be used today, 70 years later. As someone whose own non-religious, homeschooled education was based on the Trivium, I can speak from experience that this ancient approach is truly brilliant.

The Trivium is divided into three stages – the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage – and I will share a very brief overview of how it works.

The first stage, aimed at young children (roughly up to grade four), is meant to do exactly what Monbiot wants – to embrace their natural curiosity, imagination, desire to memorize fun facts and rhymes, and listen to endless stories. This is a stage for the absorption of pure knowledge, a time when children’s minds are like sponges and they’re excited to take in whatever they’re given.

This is followed by the logic stage in grades 5 through 8, when kids naturally start asking “Why?” They want to know how the world works. Academically, these interests are supported by teaching the scientific method, how to construct good paragraphs, criticism and analysis of texts, and lots of reading about why things happen the way they do, i.e. a book on why the Civil War happened, not just its story.

Finally, the rhetoric stage, which coincides with high school, is a time for learning how to express oneself through writing and speaking – a skill sadly lacking these days. As described by Susan Wise Bauer, author of A Well-Trained Mind:

“The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his [or her] conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language.”

By this point, a student should be well equipped with Sayers’ “tools of learning”, ready to tackle the world independently. She writes:

“For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door.”

Is this not what every teacher wants for a student, what every parent desires for a child? The ability to pursue knowledge in a way that delights and enlightens, rather than intimidates and bores?

So, while the current school model does need an update, I don’t think it means the wheel needs to be reinvented. By looking to the past, all the way back to the dusty Middle Ages – as counterintuitive as that may sound – I believe a model already exists that could make learning more interesting and fun for our offspring. Especially when paired with increased outdoor time and contact with nature, it could be more academically stimulating, which bodes well for future generations of creative thinkers, history-savvy politicians, and articulate social leaders, all of whose specialized skills we'll need more than ever when the robots come.