Class Notes

Montaigne on Education

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 3, 2012


In his Essays, Montaigne touches on almost every subject regarding the proper conduct of a human life, including education. Here, as elsewhere, he sees the larger context but cuts through the tangle of established opinion to say what is simply and obviously true. Some examples of his wisdom:


  • Let the master not only examine [the pupil] about the grammatical construction of the bare words of his lesson, but about the sense.


  • Let [the master] make him [the pupil] examine and thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon simple authority and upon trust.


  • Let [the pupil] examine every man’s talent; a peasant, a bricklayer, a passenger: one may learn something from every one of these in their several capacities.


  • I would have his [the pupil] outward fashion and mien, and the disposition of his limbs, formed at the same time with his mind.


  • The lad will not so much get his lesson by heart as he will practice it: he will repeat it in his actions.


  • Let but our pupil be well furnished with things, words will follow but too fast; he will pull them after him if they do not voluntarily follow.


Learn in context; question authority; be curious about all manner of experience; exercise body as well as mind; learn not by rote but by doing; engage with things rather than with words—these precepts should guide our educational system. If only they did. Common sense is not so common. Even Montaigne, though he had a healthy sense of self-esteem, was acutely aware of the limitations of his own knowledge. He famously declared: que sais-je?—What do I know?

Montaigne (1533–1592) was no ordinary man, though he tried to present himself as one. We don’t find his like again until the 19th century when William James, the father of American pragmatism, made many of the same points in his 1899 lectures, Talks to Teachers. Yet Montaigne’s advice strikes me as even more pragmatic than James’s. Again, I quote from the 16th-century master: “Let a young man, in God’s name, be rendered fit for all nations and all companies, even to debauchery and excess, if need be; that is, where he shall do it out of complacency to the customs of the place”; i.e., let the kid go to the keg party when that’s part of the university social scene. I love the wide vista that Montaigne’s thinking takes in. He understood that ideas antithetical to his own period might become acceptable in a later one—that we should not condemn students for being of their time and assimilating to the pastimes and pleasures that are part of their society. That Montaigne allows for debauchery without fearing a debauching of character reflects his sense that the foundation of learning lies in the teaching of values: “After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric, and the science which he shall then himself most incline to, his judgment being before hand formed and fit to choose, he will quickly make his own.”

With values in place, a student can be trusted to indulge in the pastimes, even some of the so-called debaucheries, common to the age. The combination of values and flexibility is the recipe for success, and as I grow older I struggle to keep it in mind as I deal with students in a changing social context.


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