Discussing essays with Max and how the essay came to be a literary form led us to Michel de Montaigne, the first essayist. In fact, Montaigne titled his collection of 107 written thoughts (which we now consider “essays”) Essaies, which is French for “trials” or “attempts”. Montaigne’s Essays were published in 1580, thus giving rise to the “essay”, which is a literary form in which a given topic is exposed and explored through a short, subjective treatment.
Reading a few of Montaigne’s essays with Max led me to read a few more on my own last night. I was delighted to find some of his quasi-ancient views on education reaffirmed my own intuitions. Was Montaigne an early “unschooler”? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here are a few excerpts from his essay, “On the Education of Children”, which is addressed to a Countess friend.
If you can overlook the use of antiquated references to “races” of children in which “race” does not connote our contemporary meaning, then you might find this passage making a firm argument for experence-based learning in a holistic context:
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 barely find two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.
Let him be asked for an account not merely of the words of his lesson, but of its sense and substance, and let him judge the profit he has made by the testimony not of his memory, but of his life. Let him be made to show what he has learned in a hundred aspects, and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has yet properly grasped it and made it his own, planning his progress according to the pedagogical method of Plato. It is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge food just as we swallowed it. The stomach has not done its work if it has not changed the condition and form of what has been given it to cook.
Montaigne emphasizes the importance of broad exposure to ideas in the development of critical thinking and reasoning:
Let the tutor make his charge pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust: let not Aristotle’s principles be principles to him any more than those of the Stoics or Epicureans. Let this variety of ideas be set before him: he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only the fools are certain and assured.
He who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing; indeed he seeks nothing. We are not under a king; let each one claim his own freedom. Let him know that he knows, at least. He must imbibe their ways of thinking, not their precepts. And let him boldly forget, if he wants, where he got them, but let him know how to make them his own…. With the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgement. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.
Sharply critical of the rote memorization so common to schools in the trivium method, which reigned supreme as a pedagogical prop during his life, Montaigne scoffed:
To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep. What we know rightly, we dispose of, without looking at the model, without turning our eyes towards our book. Sad competence, a purely bookish competence! I intend it to serve as decoration, not as foundation.
He also lauds the “apprenticeship” of life as a primary means of education.
Everything that comes to our eyes is book enough: a page’s prank, a servant’s blunder, a remark at table, are so many new materials. For this reason, mixing with men is wonderfully useful and visiting foreign countries… to bring back knowledge of the characters and ways of those nations, and to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.
Exposure to a vast array of conventions, practices, beliefs, and individuals enables a child to edit and revise his own opinions- it cultivates humility, as opposed to the need to be “right” or the desire to win (which can not be motivated by a desire for truth). In this sense, education cultivates certain virtues and worldviews broad enough to accomodate new knowledge.
Let him be made to understand that to confess the flaw he discovers in his own argument, though it still be unnoticed except by himself, is itself an act of judgement and sincerity, which are the principal qualities he seeks; that obstinacy and contention are vulgar qualities, most often seen in the meanest souls; that to change his mind and correct himself, to give up a bad position at the height of his ardor, are rare, strong, and philosophical qualities.
Montaigne’s views on coercion in education were astonishingly progressive for his time:
As to the rest, this method of education ought to be carried on with a severe sweetness, quite contrary to the practice of our pedants, who, instead of tempting and alluring children to letters by apt and gentle ways, do in truth present nothing before them but rods and rules, horror and cruelty. Away with this violence! away with this compulsion! than which, I certainly believe nothing more dulls and degenerates a well-descended nature. If you would have him apprehend shame and chastisement, do not harden him to them… amongst other things, the strict government of most of our colleges has evermore displeased misadventure, they might have erred less perniciously on the indulgent side. ‘Tis a real house of correction of imprisoned youth. They are made debauched by being punished before they are so. Do but come in when they are about their lesson, and you shall hear nothing but the outcries of boys under execution, with the thundering noise of their pedagogues drunk with fury. A very pretty way this, to tempt these tender and timorous souls to love their book, with a furious countenance, and a rod in hand!
I will definitely be forcing Max to read and recite Montaigne essays in the near future. Perhaps I’ll begin with this one. (Alina cackles madly before preparing for a diaper run.)