Professional Learning

Novum Trivium: Teaching Our Children How to Spin, Unspin and Decide What to Spin

February 12, 2013
Photo credit: iStockPhoto

It's five minutes before the bell. My psychology students are reaching for their smartphones after our mini-field trip to the main campus library for an introduction to online reference materials.

"Wait," I say. "Before you go, I have a short question to leave you with."

The students sigh but smile, setting down their phones.

"What's left?" I ask, pausing for effect. "What is left?" They wait for me to continue. "Online, you've now got instant access to what everyone everywhere knows and thinks. In the past, to know anything you would have had to spend hours finding and memorizing it. Now it's right there on your smartphones. So what's left? If everyone has access to all this information, what is school for, and how could it possibly give you any kind of edge? What's the future of education?"

Enemy Without, Folly Within

Here's my answer. The future of education should take a parchment page from the past, reviving and updating The Trivium, the three-chambered heart of a liberal arts education developed in the fifth century; three subjects -- grammar, logic and rhetoric -- taught to all free (liber) citizens.

The Trivium was revived during the Renaissance for reasons like mine, an effort to cultivate a competent citizenry able to defend itself not just against the enemy without but the folly within -- the mind's tendency to embrace ideas that feel better than they are.

There's a lot of that folly going around these days, majorities flocking to convenient lies. We lament our nation's slippage in math and science, but to me that's secondary, a result of just the kind of poor prioritizing you'd expect from citizens ill-prepared to defend themselves against the folly within. Not all students become mathematicians and scientists, but all become citizens, employing the heart of the scientific method, which, contrary to public education, is not lab technique but careful hypothesizing, shopping skillfully among alternative interpretations. In life as in the lab, data doesn't tell us anything outright. We have to interpret it, and for that, an updated Trivium would be just the ticket.

A Three-Chambered Heart

I envision a new Trivium, or Novum Trivium, as:

  • Rhetoric: How to spin
  • Critical Thinking: How to unspin
  • Emotional Intelligence: How to wonder about what to spin

1. Rhetoric

Grammar is folded into rhetoric and critical thinking, the art of making persuasively coherent and credibly realistic cases, respectively, which makes room for emotional intelligence.

Rhetoric stays. It may seem odd to want to arm citizens with the power to spin their opinions, but think of the alternative. You don't want to send citizens unarmed to a spun fight, and you can't make spin illegal. If spin is outlawed, only outlaws will have spun. In democracies we need citizens who know how to make their case as persuasively as possible, but also to know that they are using rhetoric, rather than claiming that they're just speaking the infallible truth revealed by data.

2. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking doesn't or at least shouldn't imply infallibility the way logic does. Its focus isn't on making infallible arguments but rather on spotting weak points in supposedly infallible arguments. In other words, critical thinking is how to unspin, stripping the rhetorical insistence off insistent assertions.

3. Emotional Intelligence

My third art is emotional intelligence, or more specifically what I'd call "introspective intelligence," encapsulated nicely by the Danish poet Piet Hein as "knowing the follies of humankind by introspection." I add introspective intelligence to combat what I'll call the Rhetoro-Critical Paradox, people's paradoxical tendency to get more stubborn with education, not less, using their new-gained rhetorical skills to defend themselves and new-gained critical skills to attack their opponents. An education in introspective intelligence would aim to counter that effect.

Shortcuts and Tricks

These days, the greatest advances on the New Trivium's three topics come from social psychology, which investigates and catalogues heuristics and biases, the interpretive shortcuts that make us efficient, if often sloppy and sometimes dangerous, thinkers.

Starting even with the youngest students, we could teach the catalog of tricks exposed by social psychology, tricks that weigh in on all three topics at once, since rhetoric and critical thinking are two sides of the same coin -- spin and unspin -- a coin that social psychology demonstrates resides in all of our pockets.

If you know the mind's shortcuts, you know how to exploit them rhetorically, but also how to keep others from exploiting them with you. For example, social psychology exposes the effects of groupthink, the herd-mentality tendency to believe what the majority believes, a tendency that in rhetoric is called argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people) and is considered effective, and in critical thinking is called the ad populum fallacy and is considered defective.

Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel for his pioneering work on heuristics and biases, is the first to tell you that, even with all of his exposure to the mind's sloppy shortcuts, he still takes them. That's introspective intelligence -- to know, as Kahneman does, the follies of humankind by introspection.

The Trivium with Tweaks

Replace the rigidity of formal logic with the interpretive flexibility of critical thinking. Subsume grammar within both rhetoric and critical thinking, filling its slot in the Trivium with introspective intelligence, thereby providing an antidote to the double standard swagger of using rhetoric to defend ourselves and critical thinking to attack our detractors.

If education has one permanent mission, a mission that transcends all potential for IT automation, it's this constellation of skills, crucial because our folly is rarely for lack of information, and far more often for lack of interpretive care, the brave and necessary power to fight the folly within.

There will never be a smartphone app for that.

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