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Michel De Montaigne On The Education Of Our Children


Towards the end of 1500, Montaigne became aware of how important education is to the formation of individuals capable of leading their own lives and thinking for themselves.

The same questions that parents are asking themselves nowadays and that incessantly surround the reforms made to our education systems were asked, around 1579, by Diana de Foix, Countess of Gurson, with the aide of Michel de Montaigne.

The latter was invited to her wedding to Louis de Foix, also Count of Gurson, he was asked to expand on a subject, who as a future mother, she was particularly concerned with: the education of her son. Montaigne, honored by the countess’ friendship, who belonged to a lineage he greatly admired, gladly offered to write down some observations on the matter, not before he outlined the subject’s difficulty with an acute and creative image:

For as in agriculture, […] so it is with men; it is no hard matter to get children; but after they are born, then begins the trouble, solicitude, and care rightly to train, principle, and bring them up.

Being aware beforehand of the extreme difficulty of the endeavor, Montaigne decided to circumscribe the points that to him were essential. In first place, he emphasizes an error deeply rooted in the education systems which still prevail: the prioritization of memorizing over every other quality.

Let the master not only examine him about the grammatical construction of the bare words of his lesson, but about the sense and let him judge of the profit he has made, not by the testimony of his memory, but by that of his life. 

Having our heads completely saturated by information does not make us better, and it also prevents us from the free practice of our thought, weakening our own opinions and enervating our natural wisdom:

When bound and compelled to follow the appetite of another’s fancy, enslaved and captivated under the authority of another’s instruction; we have been so subjected to the trammel, that we have no free, nor natural pace of our own; our own vigour and liberty are extinct and gone.

The most important thing is to impress in the child an eagerness to learn, activate and reinforce in him the already existing instinct of curiosity, instead of taming him with the names of characters and supposedly important dates.

Let him not teach him so much the narrative parts of history as to judge them.

The child must see how his judgement takes shape in order to confront the world for the first time, questioning, when necessary, the words of the most distinguishes teachers.

Bees cull their several sweets from this flower and that blossom, here and there where they find them, but themselves afterwards make the honey, which is all and purely their own, and no more thyme and marjoram: so the several fragments he borrows from others, he will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment.

Doubt, as a method of knowledge, is more important than certainty, that do nothing more than make us stubborn and unable to sum up and listen:

Only madmen are certain and resolute.

Montaigne, a Ralph Waldo Emerson of the Renaissance, invites us to “trust oneself”, and to follow the guidance of reason itself as a vital contingency:

Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing.

Let his conscience and virtue be eminently manifest in his speaking, and have only reason for their guide.

But for Montaigne, the intellectual exercises are useless unless they are imbued in the utility of life, in the dialectic contemplation of nature and the different human customs. To raise a child is to teach him the fundamental issues that will make him someone who knows how to judge wisely, someone healthy, prudent and virtuous, and that will keep him away from stubbornness and conceitedness that so often are confused for true wisdom.

Montaigne’s lesson is a valuable sapere aude (dare to know) which the educator, more than he parents, must impress permanently in the consciousness of the child without false ruses or long hours of study, but through example, the activity and even the game, pulling him away from the dangers of being overexposed to books:

Otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.

As he would say so himself, it is pointless to “cudgelled our brains in the study of Aristotle” if that does not enable us to become more aware and understanding of our own nature.

Tis a great foolery to teach our children: the knowledge of the stars and the motion of the eighth sphere before their own.

Philosophy is an activity that makes the jubilee spring from whomever practices it “by your cheerful and pleasant countenances, you are engaged in no, very deep discourse.” Life and philosophy do not hold for Montaigne the distance they seem to usually keep in academic life. To Montaigne, children should taste happiness and strong encouragement that this practice bestows:

It is a mistake to present it as inaccessible for children with an angry appearance, surly and frightening […] there is nothing that is more joyous, vigorous, jolly and even playful.

We must consider that Montaigne received an exceptional education at the hand of his father: when he was a newborn he went to live in the villages located in his estate so that he could experience poverty firsthand. When he was back in his castle, and still at a very young age, he was taken care of by a German man, who knew close to no French, but fluent Latin, and who taught him all the secrets of the language. When he had a perfect control over it, he was taught Greek and only after he had a perfect understanding of this did he learn French. Nonetheless, Montaigne recognizes that his superior education only gave him great advantages and, undoubtedly, his judgment and his passion for books.

His goodbye took the form of a warning:

To do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.

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