The Trivium as a Basic for Successful Curriculum Development

by Steve Jackson

In working with curriculum across more than thirty universities in a decade, I began to take note of both errors that faculty were constantly making when they created curriculum (and which would require extensive cleaning up at some point) and the models that succeeded even when the odds against success were significant.  I want to make it clear here that, except for connecting some of these concepts to older ideas in higher education, the basic “best practices” when making curriculum have all been things I have observed other faculty doing.

In most cases the faculty I watched create curriculum who were the best at it knew perfectly well what they were doing and why, so this is not a case of my observational brilliance teasing points of practice from the processes used by faculty who accidentally arrived at success.  In nearly every case the faculty knew why there were doing what they were doing, and were deliberate in their efforts to use their theory to drive the practice of their curriculum.  This is not to say faculty who performed poorly in this area were illogical in their choices.  Many in fact were logical, it is just that their logic tended to be directed to other ideas than developing a frugal, teachable, and hard hitting curriculum that would lead students to success in a particular field of endeavor.

One example of this is the “liberal arts cudgel.”  About half the curriculum discussions I have been involved in (thirty or more) my notes show an immense amount of time being wasted talking about the liberal arts and if the curriculum violates this principal.  In two noted examples, an art historian serving as a lone scholar in a department of physical artists brought up the problem that the art major included only one art history class with the option for a second, which he believed meant they would graduate without a foundation in the liberal arts.  The discussion then devolved into twenty-hours of discussion of what the liberal arts was.  This was one of the questions I was brought into answer for the department, so I gave them the answer that would best serve their purposes.  The liberal arts is a founding concept of liberal education which is commonly used to delay and stop curriculum innovation leading to thousands of hours of discussions.  I then pointed out the obvious, the college required all students to take 36 hours of core work that was called the “liberal arts core”.  This both defined what the liberal arts was, and solved the departments problem in one short reading.  The liberal arts is, at that college, whatever the liberal arts core claims to teach, and since the core was handling matters well, there was no need to waste time, energy, or money trying to duplicate in inside of an individual department. (see this article on the subject.)

In many cases though an understanding of the liberal arts is an important tool in curriculum creation.  The main reason is that the idea, in its original form, survived intact as a logical argument for more than a thousand years before taking a huge left turn in America during its first century of existence.

The basic understanding of the liberal arts is that it consists of three broad understandings of knowledge.  The first is grammar, or the use of tools to gather and modify information.  Grammar is in its widest understandings a study and mastery of technology.  The second understanding is that of logic, or the ability to obtain an objective answer when using the tools of grammar to collect and record information.  The third understanding is that of rhetoric, or the ability to communicate the objective answers found by logic to an audience using the tools of grammar.  The three liberal arts form an interlocking set of circles, representing that each area of understanding is connected to the other.  Despite this large parts of each understanding are their own areas of study.

The first observation I made of well designed curriculum was that it tended to be concentrated in one area of the trivium with occasional visits to the other.  The concentration made sense as I interviewed students.  Students tend to be most comfortable with one of the liberal arts.  They tend to be much weaker with the other two.  At the undergraduate level the successful major recognizes this, and tends to be significantly heavy in one area.  It also does not abandon the other two, but treats them as needed expansions of basic concepts taught early in the program to provide context.

Take film as a study in a college.  There are three basic ways it can be studied assuming that the curriculum writer intends the student to be proficient in the field and able to easily hold employment.  The three areas are:

  • Grammar: Filmmaking.  How to create films from design to release.
  • Logic: Film Studies.  The artistic, cultural and social understanding of film.
  • Rhetoric: Film Business.  The marketing of films or video.

A good major in each of the three cases looks very different.  Filmmaking is a complex craft learned by being present problems and solving them.  Film studies is the study of the meaning, content, effect, or arty of films.  Film business is the funding, selling, and development of major film projects.

A good filmmaking major has an introductory film history course (logic) and a film business course near its end, but concentrates on a series of efforts to learn writing, visual story telling, the art of motion photography, editing, and then capstone courses where the students actually produce movies.  The film studies major would have a film history course at the start and a business course at the end, but would have a single filmmaking experience that roughly tried to cover all of the basis of the courses listed above, and would instead spend much of its time in understanding the complex theory of how films and understood by audiences.

Each major attracts a very different student at the undergraduate level, and the students can become unnerved if they feel they are signing up for one course of study and instead get another.


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