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.

Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand

An article in Wellington’s Dominion Post today describes how an “unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant.” The gist of the article, by Richard Shaw, a professor and director of Massey University’s BA program, is that the workplace of the future will require more arts degree graduates. As the speed of technological change increases, technical jobs are becoming computerised, and entirely new jobs are being created. The workforce therefore needs graduates with “the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity”, those skills that an arts degree teaches.

The argument is the one that arts and humanities programs the world over have been using over the past decade as the call for technical specialisation has seen graduation numbers decline. Arts programs have found themselves needing to justify their existence on the same terms as technical programs, which speak from ideas of productivity, employability, and ‘usefulness’. Specialised university degrees boast of higher employment rates of graduates, higher salaries, and moreover make the assertion that they are more practically useful to economies and societies. But by attempting to counter those claims, arts programs have merely subordinated the arts and humanities to the values of science and technology—values that the arts and humanities always stood as a counterbalance to.

I should say up front that I entirely agree all these arguments that defend the arts and humanities on terms of employability and usefulness. Arts degrees are the best foundation for anyone entering a world in which the meaning of work and technical skill changes annually. But while agreeing with the argument, I also think it is counterproductive; that by subordinating arts degrees to the terms of value set out by technical programs, we lose the essential values—and, yes, usefulness—of the arts and humanities. Simultaneously, we make it less likely that those students who study the arts and humanities will actually receive that kind of education; they will seek in it instead the kind of practical usefulness of technical programs, and look past what the arts and humanities truly offer.

Shaw fell into the trap when he says in his second paragraph, “Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.” If we set those aside, we set aside the essence of an arts education. We set those aside, and then the only argument left is an attempt at saying, no, arts degrees are better for your job prospects. And if I were a prospective arts student struggling to justify that path against those who told me to be practical, to be realistic and think about a job, I’m not sure I’d listen to Shaw on blind faith that employers would leap at the chance of having me after graduation. And even if I did trust that, I would then be taking an arts degree for practical, prudential reasons—looking daily during my time at university for chances to improve a CV, taking classes and reading books for how they might put me ahead of others in the hunt for jobs. In doing that, I’d then have missed what an arts degree can offer that nothing else can—precisely those qualities that Shaw lists and then dismisses.

The real challenge for proponents of the arts and humanities—what a different tradition calls ‘liberal’ education—is to define its value on its own terms, and to resist the easy option of merely throwing statistics back at technical programs. Doing that makes for a neat op-ed, but does not help with the harder task of persuading students and society of the essential value of liberal education on its own terms.

In the United States this debate over arts degrees and technical training is much further developed, likely because the BA degree is the norm for American undergraduates. In the US, and in a range of other countries following the US system (including at my university, Yale-NUS College in Singapore), undergraduates complete a four-year BA degree, and then follow it by specialised training in postgraduate study. There, the debate is not so much on whether students should undertake BA degrees or other degrees, but rather what a BA should encompass—whether students should major in humanities subjects, or the sciences and social sciences for employability, within their BA.

As a result, most US colleges and universities take a broad approach to encourage students to study arts degrees, or the “liberal arts” as it is known. There is a focus on the intangible but very real benefits of a liberal education, captured in a slogan like “Four years to transform your life”, through to the same kinds of statistics advanced by Shaw in the New Zealand context. At the very least there is the recognition that the arts and humanities bring value of a different kind to the focus on statistics and productivity of other disciplines—and that those values are ones students should feel proud, rather than worried and concerned, to pursue.

Judging from this debate over the usefulness of liberal education in other countries, ours in New Zealand is just getting started. We should ensure that arguments made in favour of the arts and humanities demonstrate and advance the values that those disciplines bring, and not append them as garnish to the values of specialist university degrees.

Wisdom and Age, Wisdom and Education

Wisdom has no necessary relationship to age or profession.

That is despite our difficult-to-escape and very banal stereotype of someone who is wise. An aging professor in an esteemed institution’s philosophy department, for instance,  may more often than not be someone whom we would go nowhere near with the word.

For wisdom is only wisdom when it links a deeper view of the world, picking up on subtleties usually missed, with outward action. The philosopher may have bountiful knowledge of wisdom, but that does not mean they are wise.

That deeper, more subtle view of the world is more likely, it is true, to come with age. But it shouldn’t be assumed, as the stereotype pushes us to.

We do not think of education as being about wisdom; but we should. Since one need not be old to be wise, and since wisdom is likely the most important trait in living one’s life (because it affects all else), there seems no larger or nobler purpose of education than gaining a more subtle view of the world and learning how to apply that to life as it is lived.

Wisdom as a single idea cannot be taught, but it seems more possible for those constituent parts to be.

There is an opportunity cost to all that is taught and studied in formal education.  So while there may be nothing wrong with what is taught, it must be weighed against what could be taught. In this light, it is the humanities that make more of a claim through that larger vision of education.

The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future

There are two separate and entirely incompatible strands of thought about liberal education passing through public discourse at present.

The first argues that liberal education is a solution to increasing mechanisation of the work force, an antidote for the feeling of alienation and a loss of meaning, and the way to produce broad-minded, deep-hearted leaders. As Asia invests in the liberal arts, and as a new public narrative along these lines becomes more common in the United States, the liberal arts appear on the one hand to be experiencing a resurgence.

The second narrative argues that the liberal arts, and more specifically the humanities that make up their centrepiece, are worthless in a world where value is created digitally. This view is summarised succinctly by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who writes in one of his polemics that “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Instead, science and technology are the paths to progressing humanity and improving the world.

The inability of these two strands of thought to connect or engage with one another points to the central issue: they each have incompatible visions of the future.

One imagines a world where morals, character, public service and living well are the purpose of education. The other imagines a world where humanity is advanced by technology, and education must focus on preparing the minds necessary for this advancement.

Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually. And by acknowledging that those who disagree with us about the value of liberal education do so not out of ignorance but from a different vision of a noble future, perhaps for the first time these narratives may engage with one another.