Montaigne, On the Education of Children
We’re now in the fifth century since the time of Montaigne. Nearly 500 years separate us. But when we read him on the education of children we see that his insights are no less relevant and important today than when they were written.
Indeed, the truth of what he says stares us in the face. Yet there are those school people who go on acting as if Montaigne’s truths had never been said, or as if they had not read them.
What Montaigne said in his essay on the Education of Children ought to have been, and go on being, incorporated into everyone’s thinking about education. But this has not happened and we go on making the same, for too many children, fatal mistakes.
What are some of these truths, as fresh and important today as when they were written? Perhaps now they are even more fresh and important because of all we have learned in their support since Montaigne’s time.
Here are just four:
This first one directly addresses the public school classroom, still ubiquitous in our country, and still the subject of endless, and mostly failed reform efforts.
“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.”
Montaigne clearly says that teaching for understanding is the only kind of teaching we should be doing. Now, some 500 years later, although the professed goal of our elite schools of education, there are very few schools where this kind of teaching takes place. Instead, test preparation is still what mostly goes on in our schools.
“Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later… So with the pieces borrowed from others the student will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment and understanding.”
(That is, he will if his education has been successful.)
Montaigne knew that interest and motivation, what he calls appetite and affection, are essential, that without them nothing important will happen to and with the student.
“There is nothing like arousing appetite and affection; otherwise all you make of your students are asses loaded with books.”
This last citation is not from Montaigne, but from Montaigne quoting Horace (Ars Poetica, 311), who says:
“Master the stuff, and words will freely follow.” Montaigne further explains, “When things have taken possession of the mind, words come thick and fast,” or “the things themselves carry the words along.”
Here we’re reminded that if our students are not equipped with substance, that is with ideas of their own that have sprung from their own efforts and experiences, they will have nothing to say, and if they do write they will write nothing of value. But when they are well equipped the writing will flow of its own.
It’s not enough to teach kids to write, whatever that means. Montaigne reminds us that they first of all need things to write about. And we don’t help them nearly enough with that.Explore posts in the same categories: Schooling or education