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Tom Hodgkinson: The old educational ways are not remotely Gradgrindian


For the past three days we have been home-schooling my nine-year-old son, Henry. The reason is that we are waiting for a place to come up for him at London's busy schools. OK, I accept three days is not enough time to present a detailed research document. But let me offer a couple of reflections.

Henry is delighted not to have to go to school. He sees this period as an opportunity to upgrade his character on Skyrim, the fiendishly complicated computer game he likes, where he wanders around a medieval landscape in the form of a vampire, killing monsters and his ex-wives.

Home-schooling for me, on the other hand, is an opportunity to take responsibility for his education, even for a brief period, and get him out of the grip of the state and its latest ideology.

I suppose in an ideal world, I would instruct Henry in the noble trivium in the morning, then take him skateboarding after lunch. That was the three-fold path of old. Conceived by the Greeks (the trivium, not skateboarding), it stayed more or less at the centre of primary education until the Enlightenment. It is how Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton would have been taught.

The three parts were grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. First you were taught the grammar of your own language, its rules. Grammar was – is – essentially a science, and a body of knowledge taught through repetition. "A pronoun is a word that stands in place of a noun," would be repeated in chorus by groups of medieval children.

Such building blocks were seen as an important foundation to critical thinking. As the great autodidact William Cobbett put in his grammar guide of 1832: "The actions of man proceed from their thoughts. In order to obtain the co-operation, the concurrence, the consent of others, we must communicate our thoughts to them. The means of this communication are words; and grammar teaches us to make use of words."

Following grammar, the children of yesteryear would be instructed in the art of dialectic – what today we would call logic or critical thinking. The third part of their education was rhetoric – the communication of ideas, whether by speech or writing. Then the students would move on to stage two, the quadrivium. This consisted of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy; in other words, the study of the world out there.

The trivium is showing signs of returning to the educational debate. A couple of weeks ago at the Idler Academy, we held a talk by former drama teacher Martin Robinson based on his new book about the trivium. In the audience were gangs of primary-school teachers, grammar-school heads and Liz Truss, the education minister. A few days later, that Michael Gove popped into our shop and we told him all about it.

So I sat down and taught him (Henry, not the Secretary of State for Education) the definition of a noun, a verb, a pronoun and a conjunction. I taught him how to play the scale of C-major. He did four pages of the maths book we bought from WH Smith. And he read a few Greek myths on his own while I got on with some work.

Henry also wrote a review of Stig of the Dump which included the line: "Overall I think it is a good funny book," which is not going to win him the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, but it's a start.

A couple of hours of this each day and we'd get Henry up to 11-plus standard in no time. This is not to diss school teachers: they have to teach classes of 30 or more, so progress will necessarily be slower. But what is really fascinating is that the old educational ways are not remotely Gradgrindian, which is how they are routinely caricatured. In fact, the liberal arts, as they are known – and that means an education for a free person, not a slave – were non-utilitarian, and included what we would call a progressive element: they encouraged dialogue and debate, in the spirit of Socrates.

What Henry is really missing out on, of course, is playing with other boys. And home-schooling demands a lot of parents. I suspect that after a few weeks of our experiment, his parents will welcome his return to the arms of the state, for all its imperfections.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'