Montaigne on the Education of Children

“The greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge,” Montaigne says, “seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” That seems right; and yet it’s hard to argue that we’ve solved the difficulties.

The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today. He pleas for an education system that focusses on the individual, even going so far as to advise the person to whom his letter is addressed to not send her son to school, but to instead find a full-time private tutor. Our education focusses so much on the masses that it fails to give anyone a real education:

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” 

What is the ultimate point of our education? We debate that question keenly, but for Montaigne it was clear: “The gain from our study is to have become better and wiser by it.” By this he means understanding or a kind of judgement that informs thought and action. Memorisation is the enemy of understanding:

“It is the understanding… that sees and hears; it is the understanding that makes profit of everything, that arranges everything, that acts, dominates, and reigns; all other things are blind, deaf and soulless. Truly we make it servile and cowardly, by leaving it no freedom to anything by itself. Who ever asked his pupil what he thinks of rhetoric or grammar, or of such-and-such a saying of Cicero? They slap them into our memory with all their feathers on, like oracles in which the letters and syllables are the substance of the matter. To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep.”

Memorisation is unrelated to education, for an education properly understood must be about understanding and judgement. And yet our schools continue to teach to tests, and tests require almost nothing but memorisation. This recalls Seneca’s lament that “We learn not for life, but for the schoolroom.” Likewise, when studying history, our schools focus on the irrelevant parts that are easily taught, and not on the essence of how what we learn could inform our lives:

“But let my guide (the teacher) remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.

Montaigne makes what is today a most controversial argument, arguing that science should be left entirely aside until students have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the philosophy of how to live. The common logic today is that students should prepare themselves with technical skills first, and learn about life later; but Montaigne entirely reverses this:

“It is very silly to teach our children ‘What effect have Pisces and Leo, fierce and brave,/Or Capricorn, that bathes in the Hesperian wave,’ the knowledge of the stars and the movement of the eighth sphere before the knowledge of themselves and their own movements.”

It is an argument for the humanities: that our first task in education is to come to know ourselves, so that we can then devote ourselves to a vocation once we are sure on the direction we wish our life to take. The sciences are a luxury; if we don’t know how to live, there’s no point in thinking about them. Montaigne argues, again following Seneca, that the reason so many people leap straight to vocational training before having learned how to live is because they misunderstand philosophy. Philosophy has been confused with complex constructions of logic (and philosophers are mostly to blame for that), when its essence is how to live.

I think all too often we feel the problems Montaigne diagnoses—the rote learning, the mass production that education has become, the sense that we leap into a career before we truly know ourselves—but are inclined to put these down to modern education. His is an important reminder that formal education throughout the ages has changed but little, with students, teachers, parents and public figures all concerned about the same things, but with entirely no idea what to do about it on a system-wide level. If anything, Montaigne demands that we—as students or as parents—take responsibility for our own education and the education of those around us, limiting whatever harms are done, and guiding towards a lifelong ability to learn in order to understand.


The edition I’ve quoted from is The Complete Essays of Montaigne from Stanford University Press, translated by Donald Frame.

A Future Without Personal History

Note: In 2011 I wrote this article for ReadWrite, a widely-read blog covering the technology industry, on what would happen if we didn’t make an effort to store our communication history. I lamented how older generations could look back through letters, physical records of their lives with one another, and yet we would seemingly be left with nothing. The article inspired an impassioned response from journalist Paul Carr at the blog TechCrunch and a lively online debate. I ultimately ended up founding a company based on the premise I wrote about.

I thought I’d re-share the article as I rediscovered it. I was sixteen at the time—things have certainly changed, and you’ll have to excuse the writing. And, irony of ironies, I now rather enjoy writing letters.


Remember those pieces of paper with handwritten words on them that you used to post to people? “Letters” I think they’re called. To be honest though, I wouldn’t have a clue, as I’ve neither sent nor received one in my 16-year-old life.

I’m sure the majority of readers here have at least sent a personal letter to friends or family in their lifetime. However, the same cannot be said about my generation. I’ve sent tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, SMSs, and IMs – but never a single letter.

More than solely being a form of communication, letters are a very effective historical item. Think about letters sent home to families from the soldiers on the battlefields of both world wars. Letters were kept because they have a perceived value – it took time and effort to send a letter, and therefore people viewed them as much more valuable.

My parents still have letters that they received more than 30 years ago, and when they read them now they say that they detail entire relationships and friendships. They have vast amounts of information about their own history stored inside the letters that they sent and received. It goes even further than that. My grandmother still has letters she received from her grandmother. If it weren’t for those letters, all that information about my own family history would have been lost, or confined to memory (which, as my parents are discovering, fails us all eventually).

And yet, I can’t tell anyone what I was discussing with someone a month ago. That’s testament to the digital age that I, and everyone in my generation, is a native member of. I find myself feeling incredibly guilty that my parents and grandparents went to so much effort to ensure that our family history was kept, and here I am frequently losing information about my life.

The frequency and brevity of messages sent today combined with the numerous mediums used means that this personal information now has a much lower perceived value: Your email storage fills up – you delete all your messages. You get a new mobile phone – all of your SMS’s are lost.

Some people are already worrying about what may happen if we continue to throw away our information. For example, the U.S. Library of Congress announced in April last year that it would be archiving every Twitter message ever sent. Sure it’s a phenomenal undertaking, but in no way is it enough. Think about all the different mediums of communication you use.

For example, today alone I have communicated with people via SMS, email, Facebook messages, Facebook chat, Whatsapp Messenger, Skype chat, and Twitter. Out of those, only my public Twitter updates are being stored. There are other efforts like the Library of Congress’ undertaking, but mass archiving won’t help us store our individual histories in a way that we can access.

What happens if, in three years, I want to go back through all my communications with my girlfriend? I may not be using an iPhone in three years, so all of my messages on Whatsapp Messenger will be gone. I definitely won’t be using the same mobile phone, so all of my SMS’s will be gone. My Gmail storage will have filled up, so I won’t have any of our emails any more. I doubt I’ll even still be using Facebook – there’s all of that communication gone.

All of this information that is so important and so relevant to me personally is just disappearing, and I won’t be able to track the relationships and friendships that I have had.

Personally, I am now backing up my computer daily, and copying and pasting communication from all different formats into different documents stored both on hard drive and in the cloud. While it’s a start, it’s an absolutely horrific task, and doesn’t completely work (I’m not going to be transcribing my SMS’s into a document).

The abundance of technology is severely devaluing information. Do we go on ignoring this fact, and losing the details of our lives? Or do we do the hard work, and attempt to effectively store our communications? I know that I’ll be putting in the hard work – at least until the magicians in Silicon Valley come up with a better solution.