Education Is Digestion, Not Regurgitation: Montaigne on the Education of Children

In a letter to Madame Diane de Foix, Comtesse de Gurson, Montaigne sets out his thoughts about the education of children while wandering into his own biography and thoughts about language, knowledge, and the difference between real learning and doing well in school. His goal is to help his friend prepare for the education of her unborn child. The upshot is that he makes a strong distinction between truly learning something and simply having a head full of information. His take is that education is digestion of the student is exposed to, and not regurgitation of what a teacher or even a writer has put into a student’s head.

“’Tis the custom of pedagogues to be eternally thundering in their pupil’s ears, as they were pouring into a funnel, whilst the business of the pupil is only to repeat what others have said; now I would have tutor to correct this error, and, that at the very first, he should, according to the capacity he has to deal with, put it to the test permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn.”

Montaigne believes that students ought to be exposed to great works, but only by teachers who can allow a student to understand them and make them his own. (Montaigne was a product of his times and writing about educating boys.) Montaigne doesn’t insist that a student agree with everything that he reads, but rather that he engage texts and their authors and make sure that he truly agrees or disagrees with what he reads rather than taking it on the authority of a tutor, an author, or the reputation or antiquity of a work.

“Let him make him examine and thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon simple authority and upon trust. Aristotle’s principles will then be no more principles to him, than those of Epicurus and the Stoics: let this diversity of opinion be propounded to, and laid before him; he will himself choose, if he be able; if not, he will remain in doubt….if he embrace the opinions of Xenophon and Plato by his own reason, they will no more be theirs, but become his own.”

This is a valuable reminder to have as I work my way through the set of great books. The ability to quote ancient works and build an argument from references has a seductive power, as Montaigne himself would admit. But in the spirit of the set, this is a conversation, not a lecture by the books to us. Montaigne is engaging the authors who came before him and we engage him and them through our reading. This is an interesting point, because in this very same essay, Montaigne evokes a democratic notion shared by the creators of the set that the education for the best is the best education for all. He takes issues with the notion that Plato puts forth in The Republic that children should be channeled in their education based on early judgments of their relative intellectual merits.

“When it comes to pass, that for not having chosen the right course, we often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time, in training up children to do things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit. In this difficulty, nevertheless, I am clearly of opinion that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years, and to which Plato, in his Republic, gives, methinks, too much authority.”

It is likely a result of my upbringing in the United States, but I think that this idea that children can be tracked from an early age into specific types of education is a destructive one. I once had the occasion to speak with a British government official who said that tracking that was too rigorous threw kids on an intellectual scrap heap by the age of 16 and that this was a problem because it did not give kids a chance to develop and once they had, they were so far down a particular track that it became near impossible for them to make a change.

The other issue that Montaigne addresses is the subject of finding a suitable teacher. Again, for Montaigne, it is not the quantity of the knowledge but the quality of it.

“For a boy of quality then, who pretends to letters not upon the account of profit (for so mean an object as that is unworthy of the grace and favour of the Muses, and moreover, in a man directs his service to and depends upon others), nor so much for outward ornament, as for his own propoer and peculiar use, and to furnish and enrich himself within, having rather a desire to come out an accomplished cavalier than a mere scholar or learned man; for such a one, I say, I would, also, have his friends solicitous to find him out a tutor, who has rather a well-made than a well-filled head; seeking, indeed, both the one and the other, but rather of the two to prefer manners and judgment to mere learning, and that this man should exercise his charge after a new method.”

His goal is to have teachers that can instruct in virtue and the value of good thinking rather than in the value of tons of information. The students should not be forced and beaten into learning but coaxed, coached, and trained so that they digest their lessons and make them part of their body rather than store them in their gizzards to be regurgitated upon demand. Montaigne thinks that the measure of learning should be in the way that students live their lives as opposed to the way they quote what they have read.

“The lad will not so much get his lesson by heart as he will practise it: he will repeat it in his actions. We shall discover if there be prudence in his exercises, if there be sincerity and justice in his deportment, if there be grace and judgment in his speaking; if there be constancy in his sickness; if there be modesty in his mirth, temperance in his pleasures, order in his domestic economy, indifference in his palate, whether what he eats or drinks be flesh or fish, wine or water. “

If not, the Montaigne warns what we will get:

“To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well, you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.”
[There is more to Montaigne’s essay which I will cover in my next post.]

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One thought on “Education Is Digestion, Not Regurgitation: Montaigne on the Education of Children

  1. excellent stuff. there is much to say wrt montaigne and i find it sad that he and his wonderful common sense views aren’t as popular in education as a lot the type of garbage being actually taught. i think he had a way of looking that was very modern and that resembles an enlightened and kind humanism much more than what is happening in schools now.

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