Saturday, September 11, 2004

We Don't Need No Education

I came this close to not reading Montaigne's essay today, finding myself pleasantly Lost in a Good Book. But, alas, the Husband gets a rare weekend day off tomorrow and I knew I wouldn't want to read the long essay then. So I wrenched myself away from Thursday Next's doings and half-heartedly plunged into "On Educating Children." An appropriate essay for this time of year when I still get urges to go shopping for folders and notebooks. It becomes obvious quickly that the children Montaigne is writing about educating are boy children from families with money. All others need not apply. Of course I would so love to fault Montaigne for his lack of inclusiveness, but I cannot. The late 1500's is not a time known for its education of women and peasants, may as well send a donkey to school for all the good it would do. I am grateful times, though still not ideal, have changed. Montaigne wrote this essay for his friend Madame Diane de Foix, Countess of Gurson who was pregnant at the time with what she dutifully hoped was a son and heir. Montaigne, with no children of his own, and thought of as well educated, undertook this verbose essay. He begins by stating that "the greatest and most important difficulty known to human learning seems to lie in that area which treats how to bring up children and how to educate them." It's sort of like farming, he says, "the ploughing which precedes the planting is easy and sure; so is the planting itself: but as soon as what is planted springs to life, the raising of it is marked by great variety of methods and difficulty" (go ahead, laugh, I'm still chuckling). So what is a good parent with money to do? Why carefully select the best darn tootin'est tutor possible of course! The tutor should have character and intelligence and should have a "well-formed" rather than a "well-filled" brain. The tutor should not only require the boy to demonstrate what he has learned but also his understanding, "Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given." In other words, no rote learning and regurgitation of facts, it is more important that the boy remember the behavior of Hannibal and Scipio rather than the date of the fall of Carthage. The boy's chief study should be philosophy because philosophy forms good judgment and character and is privileged to be concerned with everything. Games and sports will also be a good part of his studies:

racing, wrestling, music-making, dancing, hunting and the handling of arms and horses. I want his outward graces, his social ease and his physical dexterity to be moulded step by step with his soul. We are not bringing up a soul; we are not bringing up a body: we are bringing up a man. We must not split him in two. We must not bring up one without the other but, as Plato said, lead them abreast like a pair of horses harnessed together to the same shaft.
Good advice really. I had a college professor tell me something similar once when she saw that I regularly bicycled to school. "It's good to exercise the body as well as the mind," she told me, "they compliment each other." My first thought was to laugh. The only reason I biked was because I couldn't afford a car. As I made my way through grad school I quickly discovered that physical exercise was indeed a great way to clear my brain after hours of study and helped increase my endurance for study as well. I hated P.E. in grade school, hated it with a passion. I was not good at sports, but what I lacked in skill I generally made up for in enthusiasm. And even though I suffered horrors and embarrassments galore, I think it unfortunate that more and more schools are cutting back on P.E. Suffering and humiliation in P.E. is a tradition that should not be thrown away lightly. Anyway, back to Montaigne. Book-learning is great, says Montaigne, but it should only be the foundation from which education progresses: "This great world is the looking-glass in which we must gaze to come to know ourselves from the right slant." A boy must travel and see the world, mix with other people in foreign lands, learn their "humours" and manners and knock off his "corners by rubbing [his] brain against other people's." Too much devotion to studying books promotes a solitary or melancholy "complexion" and should be discouraged because it makes boys "unfit for mixing in polite society and distracts them from better things to do." The purpose of education is not to become a good grammarian or rhetorician, but to become "better and wiser." But if it turns out, that in spite of everything the pupil's disposition is
bizarre that he would rather hear a tall story than the account of a great voyage or wise discussion; that at the sound of the drum calling the youthful ardour of his comrades to arms he would turn aside for the drum of a troop of jugglers; that he would actually find it no more delightful and pleasant to return victorious covered with the dust of battle than after winning a prize for tennis or dancing: then I know no remedy except that his tutor should quickly strangle him when nobody is looking or apprentice him to make fairy-cakes in some goodly town--even if he were the heir of a Duke."
Strangulation is a bit harsh, though I am sure there are plenty of teachers who have had students they would like nothing than more than to strangle. Thankfully we have industries like Hollywood, publishing, and Monday night football to keep these no goods off the streets. Next week's essay: "On Schoolmaster's Learning" (Montaigne covers all the bases!)