The French essayist Montaigne’s words of wisdom regarding educating children cannot be lessened by the fact that it was intended as advice to a noble woman on making a gentleman of her son. After all, he educated his own daughter so well that, unless her father was there, she invariably outshone everyone as the best educated person in any room.
For many years I have thought that cramming 20-30 children together inside our modern schoolrooms too easily leads them to overvalue the opinions of their peers and underappreciate the knowledge (and perhaps the wisdom) of their teachers. We would do well to heed the advice of thinkers, particularly when they exhibit a singular amount of common sense as Montaigne always does, and jettison all of the fads, experimental cliques, and popular theories regarding something so vital as the education of our children. Educating my own sons is not a game or a social experiment, nor is it anyone else’s responsibilty. I have striven to live up to Montaigne’s ideals, and will continue to do so, for my boys’ sakes, for as long as I live.
“…the greatest and most important difficulty of human effort is the training and education of children….Upon the choice of a tutor you shall provide for your son depends the whole success of his education and bringing up. A gentleman born of noble parentage and heir of a house which aims at true learning should be disciplined not so much for the practical use he could make of it – so abject an end is unworthy the grace and favour of the Muses, and, besides, bids for the regard of others – not for external use and ornament, but to adorn and enrich his inward mind, desiring rather to form an able and efficient man than a learned man….I would have the tutor make the child examine and thoroughly sift all things, and harbour nothing by mere authority or upon trust….Study should make us wiser….To know by heart only is not to know at all….A mere bookish knowledge is useless….the society of men, the visiting of foreign countries, observing people and strange customs, are very necessary….they should be able to give an account of the ideas, manners, customs, and laws of nations they have visited….Let him examine every one’s talent – that of a herdsman, a mason, a stranger, or a traveller. A man may learn something from every one of these which he can use at some time or another. Even the folly and weakness of others will contribute to his instruction. By observing the graces and manners of others, he will acquire for himself the emulation of the good and a contempt for the bad. Let an honest curiosity be awakened in him to search out the nature and design of all things. Let him investigate whatever is singular and rare about him – a fine building, a fountain, an eminent man, the place where a battle was anciently fought, the passage of Caesar or of Charlemagne….In this acquaintance of men, my purpose is that he should give his chief attention to those who live in the records of history. He shall by the aid of books inform himself of the worthiest minds of the best ages. History is an idle study to those who choose to make it so, but of inestimable value to such as can make use of it….It is not the mind, it is not the body we are training: it is the man, and we must not divide him into two parts….”
Michel de Montaigne, Of the Education of Children, 1575