‘On the Education of Children’
Michel De Montaigne (1533–1592)
Excerpt from On The Education of Children
See Also: ‘On Dumpster Diving’
…I should like to give you just one idea of my own on the subject [of education]. It is at variance with common usage, and it is all the service I can offer you on this matter…
…The usual way is to bawl into a pupil’s ears as if one were pouring water into a funnel, and the boy’s [sic] business is simply to repeat what he is told. I would have the tutor amend this state of things, and begin straight away to exercise the mind that he [sic] is training, according to its capacities. He should make his pupil taste things, select them, and distinguish them by his own powers of perception. Sometimes he should prepare the way for him, sometimes let him do so for himself. I would not have him start everything and do all the talking, but give his pupil a turn and listen to him. Socrates, and after him Arcesilaus, made his pupils speak first and then spoke to them. “The authority of those who teach is very often a hindrance to those who wish to learn.’ (Cicero)
…When, according to our common practice, a teacher undertakes to school several minds of very different structure and capacity with the same lessons and, the same measure of guidance, it is no wonder that, among a whole multitude of children, he scarcely finds two or three who derive any proper profit from their teaching. A tutor must demand an account not just of the words of his lesson, but of their meaning and substance, and must judge of its benefit to his pupil by the evidence not of the lad’s memory but of his life. He must make him consider what he has just learnt from a hundred points of view and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has yet understood it and really made it his own; and he must judge his pupil’s progress by Plato’s dialectical method. It is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge our meat the moment we have swallowed it. The stomach has not performed its function if it has not changed the condition and character of what it was given to digest.
Our minds never work except on trust; they are bound and controlled by their appetite for another man’s ideas, enslaved and captivated by the authority of his teaching. We have been so subjected to our leading-strings that we have lost all freedom of movement. Our vigour and independence are extinct. ‘They never cease to be under guidance’ (Seneca). I had some private conversations at Pisa with an excellent man, but such an Aristotelian as to accept as his universal dogma, that the touchstone and measure for all sound opinion and all truth is its conformity with the teaching of Aristotle, and that outside this there is nothing but illusions and inanities. He believes that Aristotle saw and said everything…
…The tutor should make his pupil sift everything, and take nothing into his head on simple authority or trust. Aristotle’s principles must no more be principles with him than those of the Stoics or the Epicureans. Let their various opinions be put before him; he will choose between them if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only fools are certain and immovable.*
For if he embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato by his own reasoning, they will no longer be theirs but his. Who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing, and indeed is seeking nothing. ‘We are not under a king: each man should look after himself.’ Let him know what he knows at least; he must imbibe their ways of thought, not learn their precepts; and he may boldly forget, if he will, where he has learnt his opinions, so long as he can make them his own. Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them than to him that repeated them after him. It is no more a matter of Plato’s opinion than of mine, when he and I understand and see things alike. The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterwards turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own; it is thyme and marjoram no longer. So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgement. His education, his labour, and his study have no other aim but to form this.
* Dante: ‘It pleases me to doubt as much as to know’, Inferno.
The Greatest Weight / Eternal Return (Aphorism 341)
F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Smallworks: From Flash Fiction to Mongtaigne (On…) to Williams, Nietzsche, etc…
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live it once more and innumerable times more: and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as your are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more reverently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
from ‘On…’ (Montaigne) to Keywords
Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
Raymond Williams (Cultural Studies)