Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Editor's Notes

"The function of the trivium is the training of mind for the study of matter and spirit, which together constitute the sum of reality." --Sister Miriam Joseph

I'm sure I would have flunked Sister Miriam's freshman English class.

In the third edition of her textbook The Trivium (copyright 1947; cost $1.50), she reminds students that the trivium comprises the "three arts of language pertaining to the mind: logic (the art of thinking), grammar (the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought), and rhetoric (the art of communicating thought from one mind to another)." These arts, she writes, are the "organon, or instrument, of all education at all levels."

Replete with examples from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Milton, The Trivium leads students through an exacting syllabus for introductory English. Each chapter ends with the sister's study questions, of course. The first chapter, just five pages long, has 26 of them, including "Which studies fit you to know the truth which will make you free?", "Why should you pay for your college education while some of your former high school classmates are doing less work than you and getting paid for it?", and "Explain how the following may serve as a motto for a college student: 'Get out your hooks and eyes.'"

My English-major peers and I certainly fretted over former classmates' success but, then or now, I couldn't tell you about hooks and eyes. I like another motto Sister Miriam proposes, though: "A rose blooms." The rose is perfected by blooming, she says, just as the "liberal artist" (another term I like) is perfected by the act of studying, assimilating knowledge "as the rose assimilates matter from the soil and thereby increases in size, vitality, and beauty."

The equation of knowledge and beauty may seem perversely romantic today, but it helps me answer at least one of Sister Miriam's questions. In a 1977 English seminar focused on "metaphysical writers," we students were required to keep a journal of our thoughts on the course readings. In response to a rather breathless entry of mine on William Blake, the seminar's professor quoted the poet above my scribbles: "Your exuberance is beauty." For a liberal artist who wasn't at all sure how she would bloom, those words helped make me free. Sister Miriam would have approved.