It seems comical today to suggest that even before a child can read or write, that child should be taught philosophy. I have a mental image of preschoolers deconstructing “The Three Little Pigs” for anti-wolf cultural biases or using “Bossy Bear” as an entry point to discuss solipsism.
But in his wide-ranging follow up to his previous essay about education, Montaigne argues that philosophy is the bedrock of any sound education:
The first lessons with which we should irrigate his mind should be those which teach him to know himself, and to know how to die… and to live. Only after showing the boy what will make him a wiser and a better man will you explain to him the elements of Logic, Physics, Geometry and Rhetoric.
It seems like an unorthodox approach to education now; Montaigne makes clear that it wasn’t a mainstream idea in his time either:
Oddly, things have now reached such a state that even among men of intelligence philosophy means something fantastical and vain, without value or usefulness, both in opinion and practice. The cause lies in chop-logic which has captured all the approaches. It is a great mistake to portray Philosophy with a haughty, frowning, terrifying face, or as inaccessible to the young. Whoever clapped that wan and frightening mask on her face! There is nothing more lovely, more happy and gay – I almost said more amorously playful. What she preaches is all feast and fun. A sad and gloomy mien shows you have mistaken her address.
As a great admirer of philosophy, I don’t wish to contradict him. Still, I wonder how it is remotely practical in the 21st century to incorporate philosophy into education from day one. After all, Montaigne wrote in a pre-Descartes world. For him, philosophy meant Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. Even if you stop with Kant and keep the bulk of 19th and 20th century philosophy off limits (which I would fight … you’d see me down at the school board hearings chanting ‘my kids need Nietzsche’) asking our elementary school teachers to carry this new load would be more onerous than implementing No Child Left Behind.
This brings me back to the last essay and my belief that parents need to carry a great deal of educational water until it’s time for higher education to do its part. Yes, that means parents gaining a reasonable understanding of philosophy and finding ways to work these ideas into discussions with their children. It’s not as crazy an idea as it sounds — every chain bookstore in America has a philosophy section and those racks are mostly filled with books examining the philosophical ideas of pop culture entertainment (philosophy and “Star Wars,” philosophy and “The Simpsons,” you name it.) Even if you don’t call it philosophy or mention intellectual ownership of any idea, it’s possible to start children thinking about big issues of ethics and meaning as soon as they are able to comprehend plots.
But, of course, Montaigne says it better than I can:
Get rid of those thorny problems of dialectics – they are trivial: our lives are never amended by them; take the simple arguments of philosophy: learn how to select the right ones and to apply them. They are easier to grasp than a tale in Boccaccio: a boy can do it as soon as he leaves his nanny; it is much easier than learning to read and write. Philosophy has arguments for Man at birth as well as in senility.
One other subject that Montaigne addresses in this essay touches close to my heart — how to speak eloquently. Rhetoric was one of the cornerstones of classical education. What today we try to reach in a semester, if the elective is chosen, took 10 years or more of study and training under the classical model. Much of what Montaigne advocates here is taken directly from Quintillian, but The Institutes of Oratory is as a good a rhetorical guide as has been written, so it’s wise theft. This is one of my favorite pieces of advice — always leave your audience wanting more:
Plutarch would rather we vaunted his judgement than his knowledge, and he would rather leave us craving for more than bloated. He realized that you could say too much even on a good subject, and that Alexandridas rightly criticized the orator whose address to the ephors was good but too long, saying, ‘Oh, Stranger, you say what you should, but not the way that you should!’ People whose bodies are too thin pad them out: those whose matter is too slender pad it out too, with words.
Like Montaigne, I sometimes like to stretch out in my essays and let thoughts meander and sway. I feel compelled to do this in part because my profession — that of a speechwriter — requires a far more direct, forceful type of prose. Montaigne explains the type of speechwriting that works best very well here:
I like the kind of speech which is simple and natural, the same on paper as on the lip; speech which is rich in matter, sinewy, brief and short; not so much titivated and refined as forceful and brusque.
For years, I’ve written opinion pieces in much the same manner. Montaigne, less by following his teachings than by following his example, is instructing me on a new style of essay that’s actually the oldest in existence. For me, It’s like a power pitcher learning to get batters out with rhythm and location rather than raw speed. Montaigne may or may not have great advice for teaching children, but he’s a wonderful guide for anyone looking to write and think differently.