Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.
Most people in the United States were taught that it is impolite to talk about politics, religion, money, or sex in public. As a result, we don’t know how to talk politely about politics. Furthermore, most of our political discussions turn out to be impolite discussions about religion, money, or sex.
After having listened to these impolite political discussions for many years, I think that the problem boils down to a basic failure of our educational system. Our schools are not teaching the skills that one needs in order to participate in rational, productive conversations. Our political conversations get ugly because people have never learned how to “use their words” to find truth and settle conflicts. The disciplines that help people learn how to do this are called the liberal arts. They were called the liberal arts because they were the kinds of skills that were considered appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves. Slaves could be taught the mechanical arts or the servile arts to make them more valuable as workers. Instead of being taught how to find truth for themselves and advocate on their own behalf, they were given Noble Lies (propaganda) to keep them in line.
In the universities of medieval Europe, the liberal arts curriculum consisted of seven subjects. The first three of them were called the trivium, which literally meant three courses. The trivium consisted of grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of the rules for putting together meaningful sentences. Logic is the study of arguments. Dialectic is the process through which people use arguments to improve their understanding of a subject. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech.
The word trivial came from the word trivium. Originally, the word trivial meant that something was so fundamental that you didn’t need to explain it to an educated person. Mathematicians still use the word trivial in this sense. Eventually, however, the word trivial came to mean unimportant. I argue that the studies that made up the medieval trivium are not trivial. They should be central to free public education in any decent society.