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.

Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy

Seneca diagnosed the problem with philosophy two thousand years ago. In one of his letters that make up the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (often called Letters from a Stoic when in translated book form), he writes that “What I should like those subtle teachers (philosophers)… to teach me is this: what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used and how many different meanings the word ‘man’ has.” He goes on:

“One is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind, and has reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise, one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim at and what one should avoid. It makes one ashamed—that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this (philosophy) into a game.”

There are some of us who have had a strong gut reaction against every formal philosophy class we’ve ever taken, yet have been quite unable to say why. Was it a certain professor or teacher? No, because my views have been that way across every class and every professor. Was it a certain period of philosophy, a certain philosopher? It can’t be, because I’ve tried such a range, each time thinking it was just that class I didn’t like, and then trying another to find it exactly the same. Just what is it exactly that repels us so? Philosophy is meant to help us live an examined life, and yet in class all we examine are the constructions of sentences and arcane arguments.

Seneca mocks precisely these kinds of things in philosophy:

“‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful… What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brow for?… Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?”

I criticise my philosophy classes at the same time as I read philosophy each day in my spare time. The two are not the same. I read philosophy, and do not know what I’d do without it; I study philosophy, and wonder what the point of it is. Maybe the difference is, I enjoy philosophy, but do not enjoy the study of philosophising, which often seems to be what we do in university—the constructions a thinker used to make a point, rather than whether and how their point can help us live our lives.

When I read philosophy, I love it for its practicality. It’s often like having a chat about the important things in life with an old friend. In your head, you argue back and forth, put a philosopher’s argument up against another’s that you’ve read, and listen while they debate what you should do in a given situation. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, though they can help you discover what you believe to be right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid. When studying philosophy at school and university, however, there are rules: it’s all about the precise meaning of words, the structure of your sentences, the strictness of your prose. This all becomes so important in this kind of philosophy—and your professor always demands it—that the more real purpose of reading philosophy is completely forgotten.

Seneca tells us exactly what philosophy is for, what it should aim at:

“Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth—whether his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his misfortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of the gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning (the mouse trap example)? This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy… All right if you can point out to me where those puzzles are likely to bring such people relief. Which of them removes cravings or brings them under control? If only they were simply unhelpful! They’re actually harmful.”

I think we all understand, at some deep level, the real kind of philosophy that Seneca describes; it’s just a shame that philosophy in universities, developing as they have along the analytic tradition, have become focussed on exactly the kind that he writes against. It’s easier, after all, for a teacher to grade a paper on logical fallacies or mechanics of argument than it is to grade a paper on how philosophy can help us live. But when it comes to our lives—and that’s what education is for—the former matters very little, and the latter a great deal. So it’s up to us to find a teacher who understands this (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong!), or whether we can learn from university philosophy while working around its frustrating requirements. Whatever the case is, philosophy is too important to ignore entirely, and let’s hope studying philosophy at university hasn’t put some people off forever.

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.