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.

We learn not for school, but for life

And yet how often we forget that.

The phrase is in fact a reversal of Seneca’s original, which put the matter as it was: we do not learn for life, but for the schoolroom. And today we learn not for school, but for an exam.

How do we make learning about life? How do we make what we learn matter?

One place to start: demand it of your own education. Don’t settle when you know it’s a waste. There’s not enough time for that; there’s too much important stuff to learn.

Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.

Introduction to Writing Fiction

They told me, when I was younger, that this is not how you write a paragraph.

A paragraph must be more than a sentence long, they said. Longer than two, too.

And when writing a paragraph, you must stick to the same idea throughout. When playing soccer you should stay in your position. And recently I learned that when working, you should keep to your assigned tasks, and that it doesn’t pay to go outside your job description.

Four sentences per paragraph might be okay. But if it’s a four-sentence paragraph, you must keep to the same idea throughout it, and you should be very careful — very very careful; extremely careful, if I was to emphasise the point — of how you link different paragraphs together, to ensure that your sentences don’t run too long, and to make sure that a single paragraph is not dominated unnecessarily by extraneous and overly verbose vocabulary. Make sure your paragraph doesn’t do that.

When your paragraph is of a suitable length, there are other things to watch out for. For instance, don’t repeat the same word like “vocabulary” over and over again, because that makes the vocabulary overly repetitive, and repetitive vocabulary makes for a repetitive story, and no one wants to read a repetitive story.

And a good paragraph will start with a thesis sentence stating what the paragraph is about. “It will then include a quotation”, my teachers told me, “to provide evidence for what you are saying, since you are not yourself an authority on the topic you are writing about.” The rest of the paragraph is where you can offer your analysis of a quotation. It is true that I am not an authority figure on structuring a good paragraph, but the question I wish to raise here is whether my teachers were, either. After all, how do they define “good” in a good paragraph?

Show, don’t tell. My thesis in this piece of fiction (make sure you don’t state your thesis either at the end of a paragraph or in the middle of your essay, they also told me; and remember that fiction needs not state a “point”) is that eminent writers have always in their prime broken the established norms of writing. If they did not break the norms of established writing, then they did nothing new, nothing worth remembering. But the paradox of eminence is that to break established rules is to immediately open yourself to criticism, to be rejected by those who are already eminent.

I want to learn to write good fiction. And what they told me was, whatever you do, make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end; that it has a theme and a setting, a protagonist and an antagonist, and, most importantly, a turning point. If it does not have those elements, then it is not a story. It would merely be a personal essay, and a bad one at that, with bad paragraphs, and it would be boring to read.

They told me, basically, not to write a story like this. And most importantly, don’t write a story like this that ends in a paragraph only one sentence long.

That wouldn’t make a good story, and that wouldn’t make a good paragraph.

The Meaning of School

At what point or time would we ever come to reflect on the true meaning of a word (and, really, a world) we have understood so clearly since age four or five?

School is the place we went every day between ages five and eighteen to sit in classrooms with rows of desks, to listen to teachers, to read books, and to work hard. It is a place, it is an environment, it is an idea, and yet even being all those things, we have no reason to question it. School is, in many ways, our childhood and our adolescence.

But in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper writes nonchalantly of how skole in Greek, scola in Latin, meant leisure. It is from here that we derive the English school, meaning, to most of us, leisure’s opposite.

The etymology struck me as only the most obvious ideas, too long hidden, seem to do. Of course school, a place of learning, should be derived from the idea of leisure. Studies have shown that students accelerate most in their learning over summer holidays (which explains a large part of the effect of socioeconomic status on learning outcomes, as students of wealthier families will have more books and other resources at home). Most students themselves will know they learn a great deal when reading for pleasure. Some of the most productive learning time may be spent relaxing on a couch, staring at a laptop screen while stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Waking up on a Sunday morning in summer with nothing to do all day but read a book has been the most meaningful time I’ve spent learning.

And yet school is a place of hard work. It is hectic, rushing between classes, there is homework each day, there are exams to cram for, too many books to read. From the Greek word for leisure we now derive an institution of busyness and hard work, which the original etymology shows us is precisely the opposite to how learning was thought to take place. Whence and why the shift?

I suppose Ken Robinson’s answer in his famous TED talk may come closest, the idea being that the Industrial Revolution necessitated a change in education that brought it to replicate a production line. But regardless of the cause, school today probably does other things aside from the ideal leisure=learning that are worth maintaining.

The trick, I think, is in our own lives in education, and perhaps our childrens’, to not lose sight of the original ideal of how learning takes place; to carve out time for leisure, and to avoid the trap of leisure guilt. It is to know what learning means to us, and find time for that at all costs, regardless of the time we spend in the school=busyness world.

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 Time Value of Experience

Note: I wrote this in mid 2011, when I was still 16 and in my penultimate year of high school. I might re-write it someday, but I feel the idea is important enough to make it worthwhile re-posting the original. The project I mention at the end, “They Don’t Teach You This In School”, was about creating an archive of life lessons and experiences through one minute videos asking people the question, “What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you had known when you were younger?”

You’ve no doubt heard of the Time Value of Money, a theory that explains how the value of a dollar in your pocket today is more than the value of that dollar if you receive it tomorrow. If you own that dollar right now, you have the opportunity to receive interest on it before tomorrow, which means that the dollar is more valuable to you by the amount of the interest that you receive before tomorrow (and tomorrow can represent any date in the future).

The Time Value of Money theory is the basis of fundamental finance and economics. It explains the core reasoning behind why people act rationally with regard to money and how people make investment decisions. There is no arguing with the importance of this theory in our society.

I propose that there is another theory which is arguably more important than the Time Value of Money. It’s a theory that is relatively obvious, but often forgotten. The theory explains the core reasoning behind how we act, and how we make decisions in life. And because it encompasses much more than money, it’s something that people should be made aware of, so that they don’t forget it.

Let’s call it the Time Value of Experience. It describes how experiences we have are more valuable the earlier that we have them, because those experiences can then be applied to all other parts of our lives in the future. It’s about knowledge and lessons that we’ve learned – so perhaps those terms are interchangeable.

If I make a mistake today – let’s say I screw up a negotiation with someone, or make a bad decision – then the lessons that I’ve learned through this experience are valuable, as they help me to avoid making similar mistakes in the future when perhaps the stakes are higher. By making these mistakes today, that experience is more valuable than if I made the mistake tomorrow because I’ve had a day with which to apply that experience to my life. Later that day, I may have avoided making a similar mistake because I already made the mistake earlier that day.

Therefore, experiences that I have today are more valuable than that same experience tomorrow by the difference of mistakes that I would’ve made before tomorrow if I hadn’t gained that experience today.

Obviously, the Time Value of Experience is not as easy to measure as the Time Value of Money. It’s intangible, and non-numerical. But by being aware of this theory, we can attempt to gain as many experiences as we can, as soon as possible.

This theory explains why many entrepreneurs love making mistakes, and look upon mistakes as a huge achievement. By screwing up, you’ve successfully gained experience and knowledge which you can apply to everything you try in the future.

The Time Value of Experience also helps me to explain the importance and value of my project They Don’t Teach You This In School. If people can pass on their knowledge and experiences through TDTYTIS, then young people can learn from that right now and benefit from it into the future. On the other hand, if the only way for someone to learn something is through personal experience, then society is slowed down because everyone is making mistakes that could be avoided.

I believe everyone should bear in mind the Time Value of Experience. You should try do gain as much experience as you can in whatever it is you do every single day, because that experience is more valuable the sooner you gain it.