Friday, 4 September 2009

Trivium and Sayers endorsed by science

The archives of The Occidental Quarterly are an invaluable resource and browsing and re-reading its articles is both pleasure and education.

Looking over Louis R. Browning’s classic 2004 article ‘Bioculture: A New Paradigm For the Evolution of Western Populations’ I made a connection I hadn’t made before having only recently learned the basics about Classical education.

Dorothy L. Sayers describes the Classical syllabus in her famous essay ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’

The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part - the Quadrivium - consisted of "subjects," and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these "subjects" are not what we should call "subjects" at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar indeed is a "subject" in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language - at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was in fact intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to "subjects" at all. First, he learned a language: not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of language - any language - and hence of language itself - what it was, how it was put together and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people's). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language: how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively. At this point, any tendency to express himself windily or to use his eloquence so as to make the worse appear the better reason would, no doubt, be restrained by his previous teaching in Dialectic. If not, his teacher and his fellow-pupils, trained along the same lines, would be quick to point out where he was wrong; for it was they whom he had to seek to persuade. At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty. By this time he would have learned - or woe betide him - not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled. The heckling, moreover, would not consist solely of offensive personalities or of irrelevant queries abut what Julius Caesar said in 55 BC - though no doubt medieval dialectic was enlivened in practice by plenty of such primitive repartee. But there would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate, or were making ready to run it.

Sayers goes on to describe the stages of her own development as a child -- and I think they are fairly typical, certainly chiming with me:

My views about child-psychology are, I admit, neither orthodox nor enlightened. Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognize in myself three stages of development. These, in a rough-and-ready fashion, I will call the Poll-parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic - the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert Age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent) is only too familiar to all who have to do with children: it is characterized by contradicting, answering-back, liking to "catch people out" (especially one's elders) and the propounding of conundrums (especially the kind with a nasty verbal catch in them). Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Lower Fourth. The Poetic Age is popularly known as the "difficult" age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching-out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the lay-out of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.

Now, from Browning's article:

Traditionally, biology and culture have been viewed as more or less separate aspects of the human condition. Similarly, genes and environment have been viewed as separate and discrete concepts, with commentators debating the relative contributions of genes vs. environment for a wide variety of human traits. But does this dichotomy really exist? Are biology and culture, genes and environment really unlinked as some would think? Or are these concepts really intertwined at a level of complexity greater than many imagine?

An article published in 1983, viewed in regard to the "race question," can shed important light on these issues. In "How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype greater than environmental effects," Sandra Scarr and Kathleen McCartney ask the following questions:

How do genotypes and environments combine to produce human development? And, how do genetic and environmental differences combine to produce variation in development?

These questions were in part related to the observed phenomenon of dizygotic (i.e., non-identical) twins and adopted siblings becoming more dissimilar over time. The authors ask: How is it possible that the more you live with someone, the less like that person you become? The answer is that the environments experienced by a person (here, a developing child) are in part determined by the genotype of that person; in other words, the differences between individuals’ preferences, abilities, and characteristics are genetically determined, and these differences influence and modulate the environment that the individual experiences.

The authors propose three types of genetic to environmental interactions for developing children. First there is the "passive" model, in which parents provide a particular environment for their biologically related children. This environment may or may not be well suited for the specific child's genotype. Note that since the child is receiving both its genes and its early environment from its parents, and that both are influenced by the parents’ own genetic structure, this means that it is very difficult to determine whether any particular influence is solely environmental. Second, there is the "evocative" model, in which the child receives "responses" from others based on the child's genotype, and these responses help modulate the environment. Third and most important is the "active" model which:

[R]epresents the child's selective attention to and learning from aspects of his environment that are influenced by his genotype and indirectly correlated with those of his biological relatives.

The authors call this active process "niche-picking" and "niche-building"; the child is "seeking out" those environments that are compatible with the child's innate (genetic) preferences and abilities. According to the authors, children move from "passive" to "evocative" to "active" as they grow older; thus, the older the child, the more it actively chooses and modulates its environment. Therefore, the influence of the child's specific genotype and the effects of this "niche-picking/building" increase with age. The authors speculate that this is why, for example, adopted siblings become more different over time. The more they actively modulate their environment due to genetic differences, the more these environments will differ, since the underlying genotypes differ. Dizygotic twins and ordinary siblings will diverge more than monozygotic (identical) twins, who are genetically alike. The authors support the idea that "genes drive experience" and that "the genotype is the driving force behind development." Their ideas can be summarized thus:

Because the child's genotype influences both the phenotype and the rearing environment, their correlation is a function of the genotype. The genotype is conceptually prior to both the phenotype and the rearing environment.

In this model, the child can be viewed as "canalizing" its environment in a particular direction that is dictated by the child's underlying genetic structure.

That the Trivium was our traditional form of early years education for centuries should be enough to make us prejudiced in its favour, that the findings of modern educational psychologists lend credibility to its method is a nice bonus.

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