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.

Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom

Formal education has always seemed a paradox for me. On the one hand I am passionate about learning and passionate about what schools and universities can do for individuals and societies. This perhaps stems from my having attended over ten different educational institutions in six different countries. But on the other hand, my own experience in formal schooling, most especially my high school years, was an exemplary case of education getting in the way of someone’s learning. At times this has led to some hard-to-reconcile positions, like when, as an International Baccalaureate scholar at my high school, I complained in an interview to a local newspaper about not learning enough in school.

But the paradox makes sense, I think, when one separates what education is at its core from its present manifestation. One could love architecture but nevertheless live in a less-than-stellar house; one could be an artist yet hang prints on their walls. So long as there is an attempt to improve what one believes in, I don’t see the paradox as being real; the frustrations, the desire to fix and improve, merely emphasise the depth of one’s passion.

At some point during my second to last year in high school I discovered the term “flipped classroom”. The idea was to return education to its roots in learning: have students consume information at home through books and online videos, and then in class turn that information into knowledge through questioning and discussing with the teacher. As each day I went to school and sat through hours of teachers merely repeating back the reading I’d done at home (not all of them, to be sure, but certainly the majority), the idea seemed to recapture the belief in what education was meant to be about.

It was very exciting, then, to attend a talk last night by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard, the man who is generally recognised to have come up with the flipped classroom model (or what he calls peer instruction). Eric spoke at Yale-NUS of his “confessions of a converted lecturer”, how he realised as a teacher that he was wasting his own and his students’ time by merely repeating what books already said, focussing on transfer of information rather than the understanding of knowledge. The audience was actually made up of Yale-NUS professors, rather than students, which made for a different perspective than the one I’ve so far been used to thinking from.

Through examples, data, and an interactive session, Eric had seemingly all the professors convinced of the flipped classroom model. This was true at least for those whose subjects require transfer of information at some point; there is a great difference between philosophy, which I think focusses on knowledge from the start, and the sciences, which begin with information and must move to knowledge.

But to my surprise, by the end of the talk I wasn’t convinced. I had gone into the lecture already convinced of the flipped classroom model, merely wanting to hear the idea from its inventor’s mouth; I left with serious doubts, at least about the extent to which it is being taken. And what struck me was how the one class I’ve taken that was the most faithful reproduction of a flipped classroom model was the one class I and my peers came to despise most. Eric’s talk inadvertently ended up explaining why.

Eric’s goal with the flipped classroom is to have every student prepared for every class. To achieve this, he encouraged teachers to focus on ensuring that everyone has the information needed before the start of class. His new company produces an online reading tool that has students annotate their readings and ask questions of each other on a web platform. Through an algorithm, the software analyses the highlights and comments and determines how “thoughtful” students were, then assigning a grade. The advantage of this is that teachers then know exactly what students understand, what they don’t, and what questions they have. Teachers can also test students’ dedication to their readings through short quizzes at the start of class. All of these annotations, questions and quizzes will contribute to a student’s grade.

What I hated most about that class (well, really two classes, each which focussed on slightly different aspects) that most faithfully lived up to the flipped classroom model was that everything I read was done with a grade hanging over my head. The passages I chose to highlight and question on the course website would be graded! If something struck me as interesting, I first had to think about whether I should highlight it or not; what if it wasn’t a “good” annotation? The annotations were, after all, public for my classmates and professor to see. I found an interesting passage, highlighted it, and also wanted to write a comment to myself on something to remember. But what would my professor think of that? Would my comment be good enough to receive an “A” grade? All the while I had to focus on memorising the information on every page, since the first ten minutes of every class would be a test on my recall and ability to apply what I had read.

The extent to which Professor Mazur has taken the flipped classroom model has essentially commodified learning entirely.

Students are now incentivised to learn, to turn information into knowledge, it is true. And data shows that this works! Students will remember information better, and in class they will come to grasp its implications more clearly. But what data can never show is how that knowledge comes to affect students’ lives. And as a student in an entirely flipped classroom, I came to see how nothing done for class was done for an intrinsic reason. A flipped classroom requires extrinsic motivators, and though these work in improving both recall and understanding, they necessarily work against the last step of education—how knowledge affects life. Reading, annotations and comments in the margin are done for classes’ sake, and what the flipped classroom forgets is that the classroom is only the starting point of education. It is what happens when a student leaves a classroom with knowledge that determines the success of education. It seemed as though Professor Mazur and his model of a flipped classroom has thought so much about the classroom that he has seemingly forgotten that the classroom is merely instrumental, not in itself the end of education.

Imagine a philosophy class practising the flipped classroom. The contradiction would become absurd. Philosophy, which takes knowledge as useful for its own sake, which hopes to ask and instruct how we should live, would then be reduced for students merely to “intelligent” and “thoughtful” annotations, and pop quizzes at the start of class. The point of a philosophy class is for students to discover for themselves how to live; to have tools with which to think about material, but ultimately leaving the application of that material up to students. It can only have intrinsic motivators, where a flipped classroom can only have the extrinsic.

So we’re back to a kind of paradox like the one I began with. I haven’t given up on the flipped classroom, but I am now far more aware of its limits and its dangers. The task is to find or encourage intrinsic motivators (if that is not too great a contradiction), so that the flipped classroom can remain merely an educational tool. The danger with any great educational innovation is that it forgets education is really only what happens afterwards.

Eric Mazur flipped classroom Yale-NUS

Note: Emphasis was added to make clear that two different classes I’ve taken tried to replicate the flipped classroom model, and each focussed on slightly different aspects of it.

The Commodification of Learning

Note: I wrote this article in late 2012, in one of my final few months of high school. I originally published it on Medium, where it was widely shared. What I was getting at, really, was the value of the liberal arts, though I don’t think I fully comprehended the term back then.

You can learn a huge amount by reading a novel, examining an artwork, or watching a movie. You can usually learn a lot more by doing one of those things than you can by reading a school textbook that spoon-feeds you information.

But every day, I see people choose to read a textbook they’ve already read a dozen times over a new novel, because they can see an immediate reward for reading that book. Namely, that reward is better grades.

But getting better grades doesn’t mean you’ve learned more. Getting a better grade on a topic usually shows that you’ve trained your brain to regurgitate information on a given topic so well that your brain isn’t even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t learning beyond the point that you understood the concepts – from there, it was simple memorisation.

In other words, people choose to learn less, simply because there is a more obvious reward that society offers by reading something less insightful that they already understand to a certain extent.

I think the rewards should be given to the people who choose to broaden their minds by learning about a larger range of topics, rather than those people who devote themselves to being able to recite their textbooks.

Yet no one gets credit for reading a book that is unrelated to school. It doesn’t go on their report, and doesn’t contribute to grades. In the mental equation that all students carry out, the most obvious payout comes from continuing to read the already-familiar textbook over a new book on an entirely new subject.

This is the commodification of learning. Learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes, in the form of good grades that (eventually) are said to lead to a better job. Yet not all learning is assigned an economic value – only very specific, measurable, tangible learning that is done in a classroom is assigned this value in the form of grades.

The result of this commodification is that the incentives facing students are wrong. The incentives should be geared toward encouraging learning and understanding of a range of topics, not the recital of textbooks and basic knowledge that all high school students have. The incentives brought about by this commodification of learning lead to homogenous thinking and lack of creativity – undesirable traits in the world today.

To fix this problem, we need to either:

– Commodify the learning of everything.

or

– Ensure everyone realises that learning, in its true form, is an uncommodifiable concept.

Commodifying the learning of everything would involve giving individuals credit for the books they read, the topics they learn about, the subjects they speak on, and the artworks they create. In some ways, it’s fixing a problem by throwing more of the problem at it. But that might just work.

If everyone were to realise that learning cannot be truly commodified, then greater consideration could be given to individuals who exhibit learning beyond their textbooks. This attaches intrinsically recognisable value to all learning, without making that value economic, and thereby commodifying learning.

I don’t know which solution is better. But what I do know is that education, where it’s currently headed, shows no signs of creating broad-minded, creative individuals. And that seems a mighty big failure of twenty-first century education.

If a Goldfish Could Remember

During my final teenage years I held and could not shake the idea that goldfish were a supremely lucky species. Goldfish lived, forgot, kept on living and forgot again, their memories famously said to last just three seconds. We humans are destined to remember forever: an indiscretion lasts a lifetime. We are, in other words, goldfish that can remember.

Not that my indiscretions were great, or that I really have any to recall at all. But it was nonetheless precisely this fear of mistakes, of regrets, that defined my decisions from ages eighteen to twenty. I think it was literature that did it to me. Literature and, perhaps, my knowledge that the lessons from literature were likely to be compounded in a world where collective memories are stored online.

Milan Kundera wrote, of a subtly different but somehow similar idea, that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”.

For Kundera, humans should feel lightness in making decisions because there is no way we can determine good or bad decisions. Yet we must decide, and should therefore feel lightness about any ramifications of a decision we could not avoid. For those he disagrees with, we would feel unbearable weight because in every moment we make decisions that we must suffer the consequences of. I’ve always thought that Kundera sees humans as helpless in the face of grand decisions, and therefore paradoxically able to throw off any chains and burdens; most of us, however, see humans as culpable for decisions, and therefore prone to the feeling of weight.

But it seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans. Goldfish live one life, but are unable to learn within it; each three-second block is lived in a form of the dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With no memory there is indeed the impossibility of culpability for actions; mistakes and bad decisions will be repeated endlessly, and one can hardly assign any blame or fault to the goldfish. It is true that humans live but one life; but unlike the goldfishes’ life, a human’s can be improved based on past experiences.

A goldfish that can remember is a goldfish that makes a mistake and can resolve not to repeat it. A goldfish that can remember is one that is culpable for its actions. It still lives just one life, yet that life can be changed, improved, bettered through its course.

A goldfish that can remember can legitimately make a mistake once and claim innocence. But beyond that, a feeling of weight is appropriate: the feeling that weighs on our throats, just below our adams-apple, when we must make a decision the consequences of which we have previously seen. It is this weight that encourages learning, changing course, improving.

A goldfish that can remember is one that disavows previously held views when new facts or ideas come to light. Consistency is a virtue only for the goldfish with a three-second memory—consistency in what is practically insanity. Flexibility in light of new learning is the virtue of the goldfish that can remember.

I begin my third decade somewhat sorry for the simple goldfish, and thankful for being a goldfish that can remember. I am less afraid of saying and doing what I think and believe, where previously I lived in fear of saying or doing something I might later disagree with. I feel lightness because I can learn from mistakes; I can act and learn, then decide whether to repeat the action or not. The weight of consequence allows the lightness that comes from an ability to learn and to change course. The goldfish whom I so fervently admired now seems a poor fellow; the lightness of innocence is, in the end, the greatest of burdens.