Some people think that discussions of some topics are always ugly. They think that the best way to avoid this ugliness is simply to avoid talking about politics, religion, money, or sex. But if you can’t talk about religion, then you can’t talk about what you think is true and what you think is right. If you can’t talk about money or sex, then you can’t talk about what you want. If you can’t talk about politics, then you can’t talk about what you think should happen. Worse yet, you would have no way to work with others to make the good things happen.
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.