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.

What Makes Someone Wise?

I think think one core aspect of wisdom, when you experience it in another human being, is that there is an integrity, a connection between inner life and outer presence in the world. Knowledge is something you can possess, intelligence is something you… can point at someone and say that’s an intelligent person. And wisdom is also — it’s a possession, but it’s a possession that is applied.

So the litmus test of wisdom is not just what is contained in that person, but their imprint on the world.

Krista Tippett, in conversation with Pico Iyer

I think we know a wise person when we see them, but it’s often difficult to say exactly why we see them as wise. There’s an essential and critical difference between someone who is intelligent and someone who is wise—but how to describe the difference?

Krista Tippett captures it perfectly in the quotation above (and I strongly recommend you listen to her interview with Pico Iyer in full). The intelligent person is inward-directed. They may have a large inner life, but they draw no connection between their inner life and the outer world. Their knowledge exists within them, for themselves.

The wise person directs knowledge and intelligence toward the outer world, using it to shape and improve the world around them. They not only have the necessary knowledge, but understand how it should be used, leading what they know to be used valuably in their interactions with the world at large. And that makes all the difference.

Satisfied Age and Wisdom

When I began university I deleted everything from the blog I had been writing since age 14. Gone were hundreds of articles I’d written, thousands of comments people had made. I was such a different person to who I was when I was fourteen that I was embarrassed to read what I had then thought, and more embarrassed at the thought that others might read it and think that person back then was the same person as I was now.

I had the vague sense that at some point or other I might regret deleting everything. But the concern over the gap between who I had once been and who I was at present meant at that point in time that I simply wanted it all to be gone. I was both worried for myself, reading back over what I’d previously thought, and worried what others might think of me. It wasn’t that anything I’d thought or written was controversial, or anything anyone would find surprising. Rather, it was the mere idea that I now knew more that meant I didn’t like the views I’d previously held.

Of course, I know better now. But back then I also knew better. And I know now that at some point in future I will know I was wrong now, and that I’ll then know better. That sums up intellectual development, it seems to me.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ that

“A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right.”

But I don’t quite agree. A young man or woman may deduce the conclusion that he or she is at last entirely right, but someone on the path to any sort of satisfied age and any sort of wisdom must surely have learned the lesson that one’s present views are merely the meeting place of what one was once certain of, and the views that one will come to hold. No knowledge or perspective on life can be final, in this light; and for it to be so, one must have given up on the very intellectual development that led her to that point in her opinions at which she now stands.

For the perspective one holds at any age beyond one’s youth to be considered final, one must have performed some almighty mental contortions. It is, after all, a contradiction: one says one now knows best, while at the same time acknowledging that at every other point one thought one knew best one was, in fact, wrong.

But Louis Stevenson is still here to help. His essay is one I’ve returned to over and over, to the point where after three readings every single page was dog-eared, entirely defeating the purpose of doing so. One passage in particular came as both relief and revelation, showing at once why we need not regret views we once held, and how every view we’ve ever held at any point make an important point.

“You need repent none of your youthful vagaries. They may have been over the score on one side, just as those of age are probably over the score on the other. But they had a point; they not only befitted your age and expressed its attitudes and passions, but they had a relation to what was outside of you, and implied criticisms on the existing state of things, which you need not allow to have been undeserved, because you now see that they were partial. All error, not merely verbal, is a strong way of stating that the current truth is incomplete. The follies of youth have a basis in sound reason, just as much as the embarrassing questions put by babes and sucklings.”

There is, I think, good reason to chuckle at what I’ve written here. For while explaining my views with a sense of certainty and finality, I’ve at the same time acknowledged that a future me is likely to think everything I’ve written right now is wrong.

To that, I have nothing to say; only that I will not repent, and that I’ll continue to write, day after day, to ensure I never think that once and for all I am at last entirely right. If I ever come close to that end, I’ll have all this to look back on. And perhaps I’ll then know enough not to delete it.

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.