At the close of his remarkable essay “On The Education of Children,” Montaigne reveals the most important value he took away from his lifetime of learning: the ability to take action and make something of his life. Montaigne wrote:
“The risk was not that I should do wrong but do nothing. Nobody forecast that I would turn out bad, only useless. What they foretold was idleness not wickedness.”
Today, education is often framed in a similar manner – with career goals and future earnings used as benchmarks of success. But to Montaigne, the purpose of education is “not for gain” or “for external advantages.” Montaigne sees education as the way we become most fully human, “to enrich and furnish himself inwardly.”
It’s important to remember that Montaigne’s essay focuses on what he calls “noble families.” In fact, Montaigne was skeptical of the value of education “in mean and lowborn hands.” Montaigne believed that education should help inform “conducting a war, governing a people or gaining the friendship of a prince or a foreign nation.” He had little use for the kind of education aimed toward “constructing a dialectical argument, pleading an appeal, or prescribing a mass of pills.”
But it would be a mistake to conclude that Montaigne’s essay has value only for the governing elites of a society. To the contrary, in a democracy, decisions about foreign policy, war and peace and political economy fall to all citizens who elect their representatives and hold them accountable. Meanwhile, the societal urge to use education as a means for creating professional classes continues to grow. I think it would be fair to extrapolate Montaigne into a discussion about challenging and confronting a culture of atomized experts.
How do you create a critical mass of people in a culture – whether it’s a small ruling elite or a democratic mass – capable of weighing expert opinions and making crucial decisions about the direction of a nation? Montaigne believed that you cannot create this class through specialized knowledge and by stuffing heads with facts. Rather, he believed that the best means for sculpting minds capable of critical judgments is to start off with a solid block of philosophy. He wrote:
“Since it is philosophy that teaches us to live, and since there is a lesson in it for childhood as well as for the other ages, why is it not imparted to children? They teach us to live, when life is past. A hundred students have caught the syphilis before they came to Aristotle’s lesson on temperance …. Philosophy has lessons for the birth of men as well as for their decrepitude.”
Montaigne believes that joy is a critical element of learning and he thinks philosophy is an important part of the mix:
“I do not want the boy to be made a prisoner. I do not want him to be given up to the surly humors of a choleric schoolmaster. I do not want to spoil the mind by keeping him in torture and at hard labor, as others do, fourteen or fifteen hours a day, like a porter …. It is very wrong to portray (philosophy) as inaccessible to children, with a surly, frowning, and terrifying face. Who has masked her with this false face, pale and hideous? There is nothing more gay, more lusty, more sprightly, and I might almost say more frolicsome. She preaches nothing but merry-making and a good time. A sad and dejected look shows that she does not dwell there.”
For Montaigne, philosophy-based education does not mean focusing on “thorny matters of dialectics.” What he has in mind has more in common with what we now call critical thinking. And Montaigne’s form of critical thinking gives great weight to doubt.
“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 Epicurians. Let this variety of ideas be set before him; he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. As Dante wrote ‘Only fools have made up their minds and are certain: For doubting pleases me as much as knowing.’’
Physical education is crucial to the full mind and body approach of Montaigne, and he sees a link between philosophy and physical health as well:
“The soul in which philosophy dwells should by its health make even the body healthy. It should make its tranquility and gladness shine out from within; should form in its own mold the outward demeanor, and consequently arm it with graceful pride, an active and joyous bearing, and a contented good-natured countenance. The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness; her state is like that of things above the moon, ever serene.”
He continues with a quote from Seneca: “We are not under a king; let each one claim his own freedom.” Montaigne then defines this freedom this way:
“Let him know that he knows, at least. He must imbibe their ways of thinking, not learn their precepts. And let him boldly forget, if he wants, where he got them, but let him know how to make them his own. 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 … The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.”
What Montaigne is aiming for is the creation of citizen-jurors, educated people capable of judging and integrating what we now call information and making sense of it.
“Let him be taught not so much the histories as the how to judge them. That, in my opinion, is of all matters the one to which we apply our minds in the most varying degree. I have read in Livy a hundred things that another man has not read in him. Plutarch has read in him a hundred besides the ones I could read, and perhaps besides what the author had put in. For some it is a purely grammatical study; for others, the skeleton of philosophy, in which the most abstruse parts of our nature are penetrated.”
Where does this approach lead? Montaigne believes that it all adds up to a form of free-thinking individualism – people so unshackled from intellectual authority that they are capable of admitting their own errors. Montaigne is often quite conservative, but this description of the enlightened, free thinking citizen is a model for how a modern democrat should behave:
“Let his conscience and his virtue shine forth in his speech, and be guided only by reason. Let him be made to understand that to confess the flaw he discovers in his own argument, though it be still unnoticed except by himself, is an act of judgment 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.”