Can We Be Over-Educated?

In his essay “Of Pednatry,” Montaigne writes about how it is possible for a person to become highly educated and yet end up no better off for it. He is writing to caution us against become the kind of person that fills out head with knowledge, but then does nothing worthwhile with it.

I think this is probably a good caution to include in the set of “Great Books,” and it makes sense to have it on the first year reading list. As we move through all these books and hear the different parts of the great conversation, we should pause a minute to make sure that we are getting something out of it all.

“We take other men’s knowledge and opinions on trust; which is idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him who, having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home.”

Montaigne is calling for active learning rather than just finding ourselves a collection of books and quotes.

“What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us.”

That is part of the reason that I started this blog. I wanted to be able to think and write about these readings and topics and maybe even talk about them with other folks. My goal was to make it more active and not just read and forget or pass over the books.

The goal of this blog is to avoid becoming the person who is “wonderfully well acquainted with Galen, but not at all the disease of the patient; they have already deafened you with a long ribble-row of laws, but understand nothing of the case in hand; they have all the theory of all things, let who will put it in practice.”

This phenomenon is alive and well today. The New York Times published an article about how law school graduates need to be taught how to do the things that lawyers do, despite a great legal education. They come out of law school without the ability to file documents or counsel clients. (You can read this story here: And of course, we have seen a number of articles about how medical schools need to teach doctors how to interact with patients because their education has emphasized everything about the human being but not the person who is the patient.

Montaigne writes that he would think twice about sending a young person to a school of his era.

“If the mind be not better disposed, if the judgment no better settled, I had much rather my scholar had spent his time at tennis, for, at least, his body would by that means be in better exercise and breath. Do observe him when he comes back from school, after fifteen or sixteen years that he has been there, there is nothing so unfit for employment; all you shall find he has got, is, that his Latin and Greek have only made him a greater coxcomb than when he went from home. He should bring back his soul replete with good literature, and he brings it only swelled and puffed up with vain and empty shreds and patches of learning; and he has really nothing more in him than he had before.”

It is important to note here that Montaigne is not disparaging the liberal arts. Rather he is saying that the way they are studied makes them useless. I wonder what he would think of today’s schools. Still, let’s take a look at his literature example. Someone who studies literature well can use that knowledge to understand the world and judge it more prudently. Look at my earlier post about police brutality and Orwell’s essay on shooting an elephant. I think that Montaigne would approve of this kind of education.

What Montaigne thinks we need to do is not, like the rich gentleman he knows, have a book or quote for everything that may come down. What we need is to have a body of knowledge that helps us to understand the way the world works and be able to draw on that and share it with others. Building great libraries is of no use if we don’t do anything but constantly search for books, Montaigne would say.

Still, what is interesting is the Montaigne admits to, and I am also guilty of, some of the same sins as the pedants who have a lot of knowledge that does not improve them.

“And here I cannot but smile to think how I have paid myself in showing the foppery of this kind of learning, who myself am so manifest an example; for, do I not the same thing throughout this whole composition? I go here and there, culling out of several books the sentences that best please me, not to keep them (for I have no memory to retain them in), but to transplant them into this; where to say the truth, they are no more mine than in their first places.”

I think the difference is that Montaigne is working to add his own voice to the conversation. I think it is worthwhile for us to think about how we might do that ourselves. I excuse his quotes and foppery because I think what is happening here is not so much that he is abdicating his voice, but making it known that it is a part of a conversation and letting us know there are others worth hearing (reading).


3 thoughts on “Can We Be Over-Educated?

  1. Thanks for this essay on Montaigne. You inspired me to read “On Pedantry” too.

    All too often I seem students who have a view of learning similar to, or perhaps less useful than, the one Montaigne decries in “Of Pedantry.” Some students see getting an education as a set of memorization tasks. Pack in the information the night before the test, unpack it on test day, and leave it there, barely digested. This is not education. The challenge for teachers is to create learning opportunities that encourage, and incentivise, digested knowledge.

    I liked Montaigne’s example of the Persian educational system. An emphasis on practical application of knowledge. Simulations and problem solving as a route to useable knowledge. It is as we apply our learning — and fail or succeed — that we develop skill.

    I’m preparing for an eight month period in which I will leave my academic environs and work for a member of Congress or a congressional committee. A brief opportunity to try my hand at the practice of what I teach about.

  2. Over education can occur much easier if a student never fostered a thirst and love for learning. If teachers in the development grades can foster this type response to learning, almost all issues of over-education are eliminated. Especially due to the never-ending list of topics to learn about.

    Education has many issues today, but thankfully over-education is not one of them. Great post but I had to include a little modernization in to have it make sense for me! It was my first time reading “On Pedantry” and I loved it.

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