By Baker A. Mitchell Jr.  September 23, 2023

It’s understandable that many parents are upset about what is being taught in their schools. They should be even more upset about what’s not being taught (at least not effectively): English grammar, reading, writing, mathematics, logic, truth, goodness, aesthetics.

Last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, which tested tens of thousands of students nationwide, found that only about a third of fourth and eighth graders qualified as “proficient” in reading, math, civics and American history. In urban districts, 47% of fourth-graders couldn’t even read at a basic level.

Much of the controversy over what’s being taught revolves around the treatment of race and gender issues in classrooms, textbooks and school libraries. These are legitimate concerns. But focusing solely on book content is a distraction when so many children can’t read the books to begin with.

At the elementary school level — grades kindergarten through five or six — the best model for student success is direct instruction and the classical “trivium.” Albert Chung, the director of the Classical Education Research Lab at the University of Arkansas, has noted that this goes back “to between the 5th century B.C. and the 5th century A.D. during the Greek and Roman classical periods.”

But classical thought “is not limited to these two civilizations,” he points out. “Many other cultures … throughout Africa, East Asia and the Islamic Empire” also had classical periods.

The trivium — Latin for “three ways” — identifies a sequence of three phases necessary for learning any subject. It’s the way students were taught throughout the Western world from the time of the ancient classical scholars until the early 20th century when John Dewey and other “progressive reformers” rejected it.

The first phase, during the early grades, involves the basic facts and vocabulary of a subject. This is known as the “grammar” phase. A major goal during this phase is for students to learn as many words and concepts as possible. These are the building blocks for all future learning:

  • The names of objects, people and places.
  • The rules of math, phonics, spelling and sentence structure.
  • The stories of history, literature and myth.
  • Descriptions of plants and animals.
  • The roots of our language, especially Latin.

Second is the “logic” phase, where students learn to apply and enhance the information, rules and vocabulary they’ve learned. During this time, students become less focused on rote facts, start thinking more analytically and logically, and begin to question the “why” behind the order of things.

Finally, the “rhetoric” phase helps students learn the art and discipline of persuasion. It helps them develop the skills to communicate effectively to become lifelong independent learners.

Any topic can be taught in this sequenced way. While it may be out of fashion, this step-by-step phased succession of learning is no less effective today than it was 2,500 years ago.

Families don’t need the dysfunctional federal government telling them what and how their children should learn. K-12 education hasn’t noticeably improved since 1980, when the Department of Education was established. 

Families know what their children need to learn — and we and others know how to teach them, just as the ancients knew: First you help them accumulate knowledge (grammar). Then you help them understand the why and how of the facts they’ve learned (logic). Then you give them the skills to explain it to others (rhetoric).

At the end of the process, you’ll have well-rounded young adults ready for life’s challenges, for being parents and, as Aristotle said, for making civilization “flourish.”