Michel de Montaigne was born on February 28, 1533, into a time when a good education was a luxury known only to the wealthy. School was primarily for boys, and in his essay Of the Education of Children, Montaigne does not mention the education of girls. However, Montaigne’s advice for educating boys can be applied just as well to the education of girls. His idea of a good well-rounded education was very similar to the education that he actually received. Montaigne’s father was a wealthy merchant, and so Montaigne was given a good classical education. Montaigne was taught mainly by tutors. He did attend the College of Guienne, but his tutor was with him and guiding him through the whole experience. Montaigne spoke well of his tutors and of their education techniques, but he criticized the harsh discipline of most of the schools in his day calling them, “jails of captive youth”. In his essay Of the Education of Children, Montaigne stresses some rather controversial subjects such as the essential need to teach children without anger or force, the advantages of letting children taste what appeals to them, the benefits of traveling and studying other cultures, and above all the importance of educating a child’s character. Most of Montaigne’s theories on education remain controversial even in most of the modern world; but because he understood the process of learning so well, his ideas remain important and applicable to this day.
One of the first things that Montaigne emphasizes is kindness and gentleness towards the student. Montaigne sympathized with children who have had one of the greatest pleasures of life – learning – embittered and frustrated by the harshness of their teachers. To teach is the goal of educators, but they abandon that goal when they use the fear of punishment to incite students to study harder. Fear has an almost paralyzing effect on the mind. An atmosphere of fear is a very difficult one in which to study because learning involves receptiveness and openness. Fear closes people up. Hard work should be rewarded. Students who do not seem to grasp their subjects should not be punished because of the faultiness of the teacher, whose job it is to adapt each child to the pursuit of knowledge in a way that neither overwhelms nor bores them. Montaigne encourages teachers to present their subjects with enthusiasm and zeal. Seeing their teachers so passionate about their subjects will inspire children to study more fervently and with greater interest. Education should be taught by alluring the appetite and the affections, not by a sharp tongue and the lash.
Learning is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. Men and women naturally desire to know and to discover. We want to learn all the answers to the “how’s” and “whys” of the world. Our intellects find pleasure in school well taught. The goal of teaching should be to make the process of learning enlightening, fulfilling, and enjoyable. The job of an educator is to make sure that children understand what is being handed down to them. Montaigne suggested that teachers question children about their studies to make sure that they have really considered and understood their lessons. Teachers should not talk unceasingly into our ears as if, “they were pouring water into a funnel.” It is not enough, as Montaigne holds, to be able to hide behind an armor of other people’s thoughts and ideas without making them our own. Some student will inevitably be slower to grasp new ideas than others, and some will catch on immediately. A good teacher knows how to instruct each pupil in the style that best suits their abilities. Montaigne also understood that children cannot be molded to fit a certain trade that does not suit them, just as children cannot be made to learn the same way. He appreciated the fact that children are individuals from birth. He held that children should be allowed to taste what appeals to them and should not be forced into a trade or career in which they have no talent or interest. Thus, Montaigne highlights the importance of understanding that children are individuals and that they should be treated as such.
Besides discussing how children should be taught, Montaigne always discusses what children should be taught. Since the object of education is to produce virtuous men and women, educators should always keep this priority in mind. Montaigne says that virtue is the ability to live well and die well. It is as simple as that to him. Montaigne asserts that it is wise to familiarize children with all parts of world, so that they may be able to properly judge themselves from the right angle, and not become narrow-minded. Montaigne also saw history as a very important subject because through history children are able to associate with the souls of great men of the past, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Lycurgus. Montaigne advises teachers not to place too much importance on dates and names and event. These facts will not make children better people. What will improve children is learning how to judge history. History is the skeleton of philosophy, and Montaigne holds philosophy in the highest regard. He says that temperance is philosophy’s proper office, meaning that philosophy teaches us temperance in all things. According to Montaigne, philosophy is not a dull worthless study, and it is wrong to present philosophy in such a light to students. Philosophy is lively, spirited, and playful. “The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness,” Montaigne says in his essay. Philosophy helps us to live well and die well. Philosophy does not restrict our enjoyment of good things, rather it lets us live to the fullest without harmful consequences. For example, eating too much makes us sick even though eating and food are goods. The temperance that we acquire as a result of philosophy protects us from having too much of a good thing. Some of the most profitable lessons of philosophy include discovering what there is to know and not to know, what is the aim of study, what are valor temperance, and justice, what is the difference between ambition and avarice, etc. Students should learn not only the answers to these questions, but also how to judge them for themselves. After students have learned the art of living well, then teachers should explain the meaning of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric, and whatever other sciences interest them. Teacher should always remember, though, that these come secondary to philosophy. It is a waste of effort to load a student with a bunch of facts and books without first teaching him the art of living well. Geometry, for example, is not a necessity when it comes to living well. However, having an understanding of the nature of man is a necessity. Lastly, man is composed of soul and body, and Montaigne makes it a point not to neglect the body in a discussion on education. He pushes the significance of toughening one’s body and keeping active and lean. It is important to “educate” the body as well as the intellect.
Education’s purpose is to produce young men and women whose virtue and conscience shine through their speech and actions. Montaigne gives us an idea how to recognize a well-educated young person. Well-rounded young men and women have an honest curiosity about everything, they are guided by their reason, they understand and confess their flaws when they see them, they are not obstinate or contentious, they do not try to argue with fools or those beneath him, they shun domineering airs and condescension, they are loyal and affectionate, and they possess a good understanding about themselves, among other things that have already been mentioned. So much depends upon having a good education. An education that allows one to discover what it is that interests one as a career or as a study is invaluable. Understanding the purpose of life is also essential to a good life. Without philosophy to give us the three proofs of God’s existence, we would be vulnerable to the attacks of Atheists. Without philosophy to teach us temperance, we would never learn how to live well. Without knowledge of our history, mankind would fall back into the same traps again and again. Without geometry, we would never have been able to build the pyramids or skyscrapers. Without rhetoric, many brilliant ideas would never have been accepted. Without education, we would lose one of the most pleasurable and profitable parts of life. Our world would be completely different without these essential subjects. It is of vital importance that we know how to teach and what to teach to the children of each generation. Montaigne’s essay Of the Education of Children is very helpful in understanding just how to accomplish the indispensable task of educating the young. Education is so crucial because it guarantees that we will never lose the knowledge that humanity has stored up over so many centuries.