Saturday, September 18, 2004


And so we come again to Montaigne. This week's essay is "On Schoolmasters' Learning." As Montaigne so thoroughly expressed in "On Educating Children," knowledge without wisdom, virtue or good judgment is worthless. And so in this essay he rails against those who teach children for a living solely for material gain and who do not themselves understand what it is they are teaching:

But what is worse, their pupils and their little charges are not nourished and fed by what they learn: the learning is passed from hand to hand with only one end in view: to show it off, to put into our accounts to entertain others with it, as though it were merely counters, useful for totting up and producing statements, but having no other use or currency
And even in these days we go to school so we can get a good job and make money. We work so hard to make sure kids are learning, we even have laws for testing what a student knows and mandates that no child should be left behind. "We readily inquire, 'Does he know Greek or Latin?' 'Can he write poetry or prose?' But what matters most is what we put last: 'Has he become better and wiser?'" Rote teaching and rote learning do not make a teacher or student who understands anything. Montaigne insists that if that is what an education is to be then it is better to have no education at all. "We work merely to fill the memory, leaving the understanding and the sense of right and wrong empty," says Montaigne, so that "All we do is look after the opinions and learning of others." As a result we end up with "professors of grammar who did research into the bad qualities of Ulysses yet know nothing of their own," and "orators whose studies led to talking about justice, not to being just." Knowing the theory of everything, Montaigne insists, doesn't matter if you don't also know how to put it into practice, a parrot could do as well as we do. "Learned we may be with another man's learning," says Montaigne, but "we can only be wise with wisdom of our own." And you don't get that from rote learning and multiple choice tests. Next week's Montaigen essay: "On the Inconstancy of Our Actions"