The Three Skills that Allow You to Master Any Subject

The goal of classical education is to train the mind to be able to master any subject through a three stage process known as the Trivium. The three skills acquired in the trivium are grammar, logic and rhetoric. After honing these three skills the student is capable of learning for oneself and able to master any subject. This does not mean the student no longer needs a teacher, but that the student is now able to make books their teacher without someone explaining the meaning of the books for them.


The Trivium

Classical education is built around the natural stages of human development. The trivium, meaning “the three ways” or “the three roads” is a three stage process which takes place during the period of development we commonly refer to as elementary school and high school. The three stages correspond with the student’s natural mental development and each stage increases in complexity and is built on top of the previous stage. The three stages of the trivium in order are grammar, logic and rhetoric.

The phases of the trivium are also used in higher education for the study of a particular field. First the grammar is learned laying the groundwork by reviewing and memorizing the vocabulary and concepts of the specific area of study. Then logic, the student learns how the elements of the grammar stage come together. Culminating in the rhetoric stage where the student learns to put together the grammar and logic of the particular field to produce useful and working products that further advance or sustain the area of expertise. Theses stages would roughly correspond with freshman (grammar), sophomore (logic) and junior and senior (rhetoric) years of college. This would be the same sequence that a student would follow while pursing independent study or an apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master.



The grammar stage is normally associated with the elementary school years. This is the stage that the building blocks for all other learning is laid. The mechanics needed to carry out all the subsequent stages are acquired here. Memorization is the dominant mode of learning in this stage, the rules of grammar, language and arithmetic are committed to memory as facts to be used in the later stages. In this stage concepts and vocabulary are mastered so that advanced study using them may take place.

In the higher education or independent study sense this would be where the student learns the terms and basic skills associated with the field of study. Most of the activities would be memorizing the vocabulary and developing an understanding of the concepts that will be used later to create useful output or persuasive material. Most commonly associated with freshman year or 100 level courses.



Logic also known as the Dialectic stage is where the process of reason is honed and developed. Typically associated with the middle school or junior high school years. The student begins to make arguments based on the knowledge acquired in the grammar stage. This is when the student is presented with more challenging concepts and tasks such as formal logic, algebra and geometry proofs, paragraph and thesis construction, the scientific method and determining why an historical event occurred not just memorizing that fact that it occurred. The ultimate goal is for the student use analysis to determine why something is true or why something is false by looking at different facts and ideas and finding connections.

In the higher education sense this would be associated with sophomore year and 200 level courses. This is where the student begins to use the concepts and vocabulary memorized in the grammar stage and puts the various pieces together to form arguments. This is also when the instructor will begin using more often the dialectic method of question and answer to help build the students understanding of the subject. This would take the form of two or more people asking each other question attempting to seek out the truth by going back and forth using the concepts from the grammar stage to arrive at a better understanding of how the elements come together. In independent study this is where a student would seek out peers or others more knowledgeable in the field and begin to test their own understanding of the concepts and vocabulary they have acquired through reading by asking questions and engaging in debate. They would also begin reading discourses and dialectics in the field of study.



The rhetoric stage is normally associated with the high school years. This stage is where the student begins to use the mechanical skills acquired in the grammar stage and the analytical skills acquired in the logic stage to criticize their own work, persuade others and defend against others. Sometimes called the poetic age, in this stage the student is traditionally exposed to a variety of poetry and prose to assist in developing their ability to not only construct logical arguments that are grammatically correct but also to articulate information in such ways that are aesthetically pleasing. At this point the student will have the necessary tools and discipline to be able to study and master any subject and to begin specializing in areas of interest. The student should now be fully equipped to learn for oneself.

In the higher education sense this would be junior and senior year and 300 and 400 level courses. It is the culmination of the previous phases of study. The student should now have a firm grasp on field of study and be able to produce their own grammatically and logically sound arguments, theories and designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and persuasive and be able to defend their positions. They are now ready to take on actual work in the field, contribute to the field and further deepen their understanding of the field. This is when a student would seek an actual working apprenticeship or begin completing projects on their own, while still continuing to increase their understanding or education as the field advances and new contributions are made.