About St. John’s College
Santa Fe Office of the Dean
Opening Lecture, Fall 2009
Learning Beyond Learnedness:
An Essay into Montaigne’s “Of the Education of Children”
Victoria Mora, Dean
St. John’s College, Santa Fe
August 28, 2009
Over the last year, my mind has very much been on questions related to education. The questions have been inspired by a year of national focus on college admissions due in part to the economic downturn. Article after article on education appeared in newspapers and magazines, treating everything from its cost to its efficacy in preparing students for our fast-paced, technologically-based world. Almost all seemed to call into question the ends of higher education as a way of evaluating its worth. Perhaps a number of our freshmen, to whom I dedicate tonight’s lecture, read some of these articles. Perhaps these same “freshmen,” undergraduate and graduate alike, had conversations with their families and friends about these articles in light of their decision to come here. For as the national focus on higher education intensified over the year, it became clear that liberal education, and its value to the individual who pursues it and to the nation that espouses it, is less understood than ever. Liberal education does not, and never has, fit neatly into the vocational model of education. This is because the ends of liberal education are not tied simply and directly to a career. Yet in times of economic crisis, the vocational model gains an even stronger hold on our national imagination than it has in times of plenty; for the vocational model views education solely as a means to an end, promising that the student’s course of study is designed and justified by the career path that it clears. Now more than ever, in no small measure because of the current economic downturn, the alternative to this vocational model that is offered by a liberal education in general and by the St. John’s undergraduate and graduate programs in particular needs articulation, maybe even a defense.
In thinking about the nation’s current interest in the ends of higher education, I returned to Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Education of Children.” Happily, especially in an ever-changing world of which we are constantly reminded, I found Montaigne in his Essays to be still himself—a subtle and provocative thinker addressing questions that are no less relevant today than they were when he first put ink to paper over 400 years ago. Of course in returning to Montaigne, I did not expect him to address my concerns directly. After all, Montaigne is ostensibly interested in the education of children, up until the age of 15 or 16; he cloaks what he has to say in the fashions of his day, some of which look dusty and worn in ours, for example his remarks to his reader, Madame de Foix, regarding the nobility attached to producing a male heir; and he is concerned with the kind of education that results especially in the making of French gentlemen. Add to these specifics Montaigne’s general skepticism regarding education and its questionable ability to affect one’s natural inclinations , and it becomes perhaps even more surprising that I would return to Montaigne at all in thinking about the ends of higher education.
But in returning to Montaigne I was not looking for something with which I could agree whole-heartedly. Nor was I looking for a ready-made answer to my concerns about education. I was, rather, looking to Montaigne for his thoughts on the ends of education even as I was looking for my own thoughts, which never become clearer to me than when I am in the presence of a finer mind than my own directed to the same questions as my own. A hint to our freshmen: There is more than one way to read a book. Tonight’s lecture is my essay—my attempt, my effort—to read Montaigne’s essay on the education of children. In doing so, I just may end up offering an indirect defense of liberal education, and especially of the unique version of liberal education that is possible at St. John’s. You will have to judge for yourselves whether I succeed in doing so. In any case, by reading Montaigne closely, I hope to give, especially to our undergraduate and graduate “freshmen,” food for thought to nourish their first attempts, their first efforts, to become members of this learning community; for as I see it, Montaigne has fashioned his essay as a challenge to his reader. The challenge is to read beyond what is simply and immediately given, and in so doing, to exercise her judgment in discerning what Montaigne is really up to.
On the surface, Montaigne presents his reader with a serious skepticism about the value and efficacy of education. However, a deeper reading reveals this skepticism to be an invitation. It is an invitation to Montaigne’s adult reader to experience directly Montaigne’s radical vision of education as the process through which the child’s soul might be expanded toward greater and greater ability via the awakening and exercise of the child’s natural judgment. Judgment, for Montaigne, is precisely the faculty of mind distinguished by its reaching beyond what is simply and immediately given. As such, it is the faculty of mind most intimately related to our freedom. Montaigne’s invitation to the exercise of his reader’s judgment, then, is intentionally indirect. It is designed to maximize the freedom of his reader in coming to the vision of education that Montaigne is offering. To read Montaigne’s essay, then, we must access this indirection. Through it, Montaigne offers us not only the beginning of an answer to the vocational model of education, but more importantly, an entrée into what is possible when we dedicate ourselves to learning beyond learnedness.
Montaigne’s method of indirection begins with a brief reflection on his paternity in creating the essays which constitute his book. This concern with paternity is consistent with the purpose of the essay, for he is addressing it to Madame de Foix, a noblewoman who is about to give birth to her first child. Montaigne’s essay is his attempt to expound more fully on the education of children as a kind of service to her. But in offering his service, Montaigne begins in a peculiar way that is worthy of our attention. He begins by undermining his own authorship, his own authority, regarding education. He does so by acknowledging two apparently serious defects in his education and therefore in his offspring, the essays. The defects are as follows: Montaigne suffers from a deficiency in learnedness; and Montaigne has had few, if any, “dealings” with “solid” books.
Regarding the first defect, Montaigne writes, “There is not a child halfway through school who cannot claim to be more learned than I, who have not even the equipment to examine him on his first lesson, at least not according to that lesson.” Montaigne’s point here is straightforward enough. His childhood studies have been limited to tasting “only the outer crust of sciences” . What he has not done is dig into any one thing deeply enough to know it well, to know it well enough to possess it as one possesses stuff—in this case, the stuff to be an examiner on a lesson, according to that lesson. The result is that on the distinction of learnedness, which seems to be some sort of quantity to be possessed, any school boy would easily show Montaigne up with what he has to offer.
Regarding the second defect in his education, that he has not had “regular dealings with any solid book”, Montaigne has in mind something more than casual reading. He has in mind a depth of study which might result in truly knowing a book and its contents. Montaigne does note that he has read Plutarch and Seneca. Even in these cases, however, he confides that he has retained little of what he has read. He compares himself in this regard to the Danaids, “incessantly filling up and pouring out.” The image is striking, for incessant filling up and pouring out is precisely a state of fluidity contrary to retention. In claiming a limited knowledge of books, Montaigne is confessing to having failed to retain their contents, a variation on his stated failure with respect to learnedness. The many references to Plutarch and to Seneca as well as to other authors that Montaigne makes are something other than retention, manifestations of the pouring out that he references with the Danaids.
On the face of it, these defects are serious. For is education not, both in Montaigne’s time and in our own, concerned at least in some essential way with becoming more learned and more acquainted with worthy books? And from the viewpoint of Madame de Foix, what reader pursues the thoughts of an author writing on education whose education has failed in important ways? Even as he leaves us with these questions, Montaigne offers a clue as to how we might read his ostensible defects, along with why he might begin his essay by pointing them out. This clue comes at the end of his prefatory remarks in the form of a reference to another of his essays. As readers, we misstep if we breeze over this reference as though it were a merely pedantic promotion of his other writings. For what we discover in reading “Of Pedantry,” the essay to which he refers, is that the essay on education is substantially predicated upon it. Specifically, the essay on pedantry exposes Montaigne’s skepticism regarding learnedness and the pillaging of books for knowledge. As such, it is crucial for understanding the significance of Montaigne’s beginning his essay on education by declaring his own educational deficiencies in learnedness and knowledge of books. Montaigne, however, does not tell this to his reader directly. He rather gives her the opportunity to pick up his indirect suggestion and pursue it, if she judges this to be worth her while. Thus begins Montaigne’s exercise in educating the judgment of his reader.
In turning to his essay on pedantry, we discover that an education aimed at learnedness is problematic for Montaigne insofar as learnedness does not concern itself with anything beyond replicating itself—a rather limited version of paternity, if you will. For those committed to learnedness for its own sake, knowledge is nothing more than filler for memory. As such, knowledge is reduced from being something substantial, and therefore potentially transformative, to being something merely ornamental—so many fine words at the ends of our lips, passed around among the learned. The worst part of this is that those who purvey an education aimed only at learnedness fail to nourish the very students for whom the education might be transformative. Montaigne accuses these purveyors of learnedness for learnedness’ sake of being pedants who leave their students starving even as they themselves are left starving. He writes:
Just as birds sometimes go in quest of grain, and carry it in their beaks without tasting it to give a beakful to their little ones, so our pedants go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the end of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it and scatter it to the winds…
But what is worse, their students and their little ones are not nourished and fed with their learning either; it passes from hand to hand for the sole purpose of making a show of it, talking to others and telling stories about it...
Obviously the starvation alluded to by Montaigne does not result from having nothing to eat. We have no reason to doubt that the grain in the beaks of the birds is nourishing enough, and so we have no reason to doubt that knowledge in books is nourishing enough. But insofar as it is neither eaten by the bird nor taken in by its young, the grains of knowledge succeed in nourishing no one. They therefore succeed in transforming no one. Rather, they are merely retained intact, now scattered to the winds, now passed from hand to hand, now talked and told about. Teachers and students alike succeed at being more learned, as witnessed by what proceeds from their lips in the form of fine words, but they starve in the process.
What would make the situation otherwise? Presumably it would be a scenario under which learning would be nourishing for teacher and student alike, transforming them beyond mere learnedness through a process of digestion. Montaigne writes, “We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle. But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.” Learning from books and the knowledge they offer does not seem to be the problem for Montaigne, but we must move beyond parroting. This will entail not just knowing what others have said, not just having our memories full like so many beaks stuffed with grain, but rather having something to say for ourselves—in speech, to be sure, but also in our judgments and in our actions. We can’t say anything for ourselves if we don’t swallow, and swallowing isn’t even enough. As Montaigne puts it, “We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own…What good does it do us to have our belly full”—in this case, of meat rather than grain—“if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not make us bigger and stronger?”
With this question from “Of Pedantry” fresh before us, let’s see if we can’t digest Montaigne’s stated defects along with why he might begin his essay on education by pointing them out. After reading “Of Pedantry,” it is obvious that Montaigne has identified defects in himself whose importance he does not take simply at face value. What does he accomplish by this? I suggest that if Montaigne’s prefatory remarks begin with a direct account of his educational shortcomings, they unfold as an indirect defense of what he has naturally in their stead. In lieu of learnedness, understood as a state in which one is in possession of knowledge but not necessarily transformed by it, Montaigne demonstrates something else, something that puts him in the position to examine those schoolboys more learned than he is. This “something” is the ability to move beyond what is simply and immediately given, in this case the lesson “according to that lesson”; it is the ability to draw “some matter of universal scope” from the lesson, on which Montaigne can then “test the boy’s natural judgment: a lesson as strange to them as theirs is” to Montaigne.
As I see it, there are two important points here. The first is that there is something in the schoolboy’s education that has covered or obscured his “natural judgment” so that it is “strange,” perhaps even to the schoolboy himself. Yet for Montaigne, natural judgment is not strange. He knows it well enough to access it by his examination of the schoolboy, moving beyond the lesson “according to the lesson.” Accessing the child’s judgment is Montaigne’s aim in examining him. The second important point is that Montaigne’s ability to move in this way is what compensates for his lack of learnedness. Drawing somethinguniversal from something particular, which was unknown by Montaigne before but which becomes accessible through his movement, provides him the wherewithal, the stuff, to take on the role of examiner. Never mind that he characterizes this move as inept. Montaigne’s point is that he can make the move. And in so doing, he can go beyond what our learned schoolboy has been given as a possession toward the boy’s natural judgment, as contrasted, I suppose, with the boy’s memory, which would be the seat of his learnedness and the faculty concerned with the lesson “according to the lesson”.
Montaigne presents his second defect as he does his first. An apology for something he lacks is followed by a defense grounded in his ability to move. This ability to move is now tied directly to Montaigne’s natural faculties. If he hasn’t retained much from the books that he has read, he does acknowledge that his natural faculties—specifically his conceptions and his judgment—have moved him into the company of those whose books are taken up by the learned. His natural faculties make this possible in two ways: they lead Montaigne to produce something of his own, his book of essays; and they lead him to discover that his opinions often coincide with those of the authors whose books he hasn’t spent much time reading. He writes:
…As for the natural faculties that are in me, of which this book is the essay, I feel them bending under the load. My conceptions and my judgment move only by groping, staggering, stumbling, and blundering; and when I have gone ahead as far as I can, still I am not satisfied: I can still see country beyond, but with a dim and clouded vision, so that I cannot clearly distinguish it. And when I undertake to speak indiscriminately of everything that comes to my fancy without using any but my own natural resources, if I happen, as I often do, to come across in the good authors those same subjects I have attempted to treat…seeing myself so weak and puny, so heavy and sluggish, in comparison with those men, I hold myself in pity and disdain.
Still I am pleased at this, that my opinions have the honor of often coinciding with theirs, and that at least I go the same way, though far behind them, saying “How true!” Also that I have this, which not everyone has, that I know the vast difference between them and me. And nonetheless I let my thoughts run on, weak and lowly as they are, as I have produced them, without plastering and sewing up the flaws that this comparison has revealed to me.
Here Montaigne’s movement places him not in the company of schoolboys, but in the company of good authors. While his essays are peppered with the kind of unflattering remarks he indulges here with regard to his natural conceptions and judgment, “groping, staggering, stumbling, and blundering” as they are, he continues in those essays to write, to take his weak and puny, heavy and sluggish motions and direct them toward perfecting his clouded vision. And he gets somewhere. Through the motions of his own intellect he often lights on the same subjects as worthy authors. What’s more, by the awkward movements of his natural faculties, he comes to some of the same opinions. What Montaigne has failed to acquire in the way of learnedness, he has achieved through the activity of his own conceptions and judgment as these are expressed in his essays.
In turn, the expression of his conceptions and judgment in the essays seems to poise him to be a better reader—both of books and of himself. For in following along behind an author saying “How true!” he has conceived clearly what the author is saying. Perhaps more importantly, he has come to a judgment of what is before him. That judgment is actively responsive to what is given in the books he reads, and could presumably be reactivated by returning to those books even if Montaigne’s memory fails in its task. Furthermore, in discerning what is before him, in content and in quality, Montaigne goes beyond what is immediately given and comes to know himself better. He is able to judge the vast difference between himself and the authors he reads. But rather than cripple him, this judgment leads him to greater integrity in his writing. Unlike writers who hide behind the words of others, Montaigne writes to clarify his own thought. “I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better.” In so doing, he picks and chooses what serves the point he is trying to make; he exercises his judgment, in the service of his understanding, as reader and as writer alike. It is this exercise, this activity, to which his reader must direct her attention if she is to appreciate the way in which Montaigne’s account of education emerges out of his skepticism regarding learnedness.
In the introductory pages to his essay on education, then, Montaigne has gone beyond the mere presentation of his defects. Rather, he has indirectly laid out not only a defense against the failure that these defects imply, but also a demonstration of the powers of his own faculty of judgment to go beyond what is given; to respond beyond learnedness and memory to what confronts him; to embark on essays of its own; and to nourish his intellectual and ethical development. If Montaigne’s education has failed on the grounds he presents directly, he indirectly shows the power of his natural judgment to transcend the defects in his education. But where does this leave his reader as she considers what he has to say about education in the pages that will follow? How will she get past the seeds of skepticism that Montaigne has planted about his subject, both through his overt criticisms of learnedness and through his overcoming of those criticisms based not on his education, but on his natural faculties?
There is still more to Montaigne’s demonstration, and it intimates a way out of the skepticism that Montaigne continues to reinforce. Granted, we see in the demonstration the success of Montaigne’s natural judgment, apparently despite his education. But we also see something more in the demonstration if we are approaching our reading as freely and openly as possible. Montaigne seems to be engaged in a further layer of indirection that sets his reader’s capacity for judgment in motion as well. Montaigne’s demonstration of his own judgment required his reader to move beyond what was given as “defects” in an effort to conceive and to judge their significance. By pointing to his essay on pedantry, Montaigne offered guidance in this direction, but his reader had to respond in order to get beyond the defects “according to” the defects. This move offers the reader the opportunity for a direct experience of her own judgment in motion.
It is in this indirect capacity that Montaigne, the skeptic about education, engages in the education of his reader. This is consistent with the end of his prefatory remarks. He writes “these are my humors and opinions; I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed. I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow, if I learn something new which changes me. I have no authority to be believed, nor do I want it, feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others.” Madame de Foix has been put on notice, as have we. We are not reading the sort of author whose interest is to keep his knowledge in his beak, dispersing it so that others may pay it so much lip service. Rather, we are reading an author who takes things in, who digests them even so as to become changed by them. Montaigne is no pedant. But if he offers no authority to be believed, at least he has offered something else: an opportunity for his reader to consider for herself whether he is to be believed.
Montaigne, the reluctant author, may be a less reluctant tutor—at least insofar as a tutor’s primary responsibility is located in the exercise of his judgment and in the cultivation of the judgment of his student. It is especially wonderful that Montaigne’s “student,” in this case his reader, is a woman. For in embarking on the education of her judgment by imitating the chauvinism of his day, referencing what he has to say about education in terms of the importance of producing a male heir, Montaigne engages Madame de Foix in a kind of playful collusion which, as we shall see, proves essential to the vision of education that he is offering. For his vision has something of the subversive about it, not only in the sense that it means to undermine the established form of education and its emphasis on learnedness and memory, but in a deeper sense. With the cultivation of judgment comes the awakening of freedom, and it is this awakening that makes possible a thoughtful and maybe even critical stance toward convention. There may be nobility attached to producing a male heir in Montaigne’s day, and the essay may be ostensibly about this male heir’s childhood education, but it is Madame de Foix who is being invited to judgment and therefore to her own freedom of thought. Montaigne’s essay, then, is not limited in its interest to the education of children and especially of French gentlemen after all. It offers more than the conventions of his day might support.
It is with Montaigne’s short discussion and demonstration of judgment, through which his reader’s judgment has been activated, that Montaigne introduces the central focus of his essay on the education of children. He refers to this focus as a “single fancy,” one which he admits to be “contrary to common usage” but which he nevertheless deems worthy to be shared with his correspondent. But the fancy, as he presents it, doesn’t look singular at all. In fact Montaigne presents his reader with a conditional which entails at least three distinct points for her consideration. First, an education is better pursued in the cause of making one able rather than learned. Second, insofar as this is so, “care should be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head.” Third, the tutor with a well-made rather than well-filled head will “go about his job in a novel way.” The tutor will stop “bawling” into the ears of the pupil, expecting of the student only repetition of what the tutor has said. Rather, the tutor should “correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand…begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way.”
Now, while the articulation of Montaigne’s fancy does not refer directly to judgment, I propose that it is in fact held together in its conception by the dynamic nature of judgment, whose importance we have just witnessed in his prefatory remarks. That is, judgment is the unspoken and unifying principle of “the single fancy” that Montaigne offers to his reader regarding the education of her unborn child. We are prepared to see this because of Montaigne’s indirection. For judgment turns out to be the thing that makes sense of the distinction between learnedness and ability; it makes sense of the distinction between the tutor with a well-made versus a well-filled head; and it is the faculty most closely associated with the mind in its active capacity, including in its capacity to taste, choose, and discern. If Montaigne’s tutor is meant to affect these capacities, rather than bawling into the ears of the student with the expectation of nothing more than the replication of which the memory is capable, then he is meant to activate the pupil’s judgment even as Montaigne has done with his reader’s judgment. Judgment is the key to unpacking Montaigne’s single fancy with respect to education.
To begin with, Montaigne casts his fancy in the context of the aim of education: to make one able rather than learned. But what does he mean by this distinction? Montaigne is ambiguous on this point, especially insofar as he is ambivalent about how far to carry the distinction. We see this by returning to his essay on pedantry, where he suggests that too much learning may actually be a detriment to ability by being a detriment to the activity of the mind. Yet he also acknowledges that history offers examples of those who have been quite able as well as learned. Regarding learnedness and ability, he writes
I should be inclined to say that as plants are stifled with too much moisture, and lamps with too much oil, so too much study and matter stifles the action of the mind (l’esprit), which, being caught and entangled in a great variety of things, may lose the ability to break loose, and be kept bent and huddled down by its burden.
But it works the other way, for the more our soul (l’ame) is filled, the larger it becomes. And in the examples from olden times, we see as further proof to the contrary that able men in the handling of public matters, great captains, and great counselors in affairs of state, have at the same time been very learned.
Apparently learnedness is not simply incompatible with being an able person. (Johnnies everywhere, and especially parents of Johnnies, can breathe a sigh of relief!) While too much learning can certainly weigh on one’s mind, to the point of shutting down one’s ability to grow and to shine, this needn’t be the outcome. When learning expands the soul, rather than weighing down the mind and burdening it by its entanglements, ability is possible. Montaigne chooses his examples carefully, for the handling of public matters, warfare, and affairs of state require one to go beyond learning conceived as so much stuff in our heads. It requires, rather, taking that learning and drawing from it in a variety of ways, for example discerning the universal in the particular. It is curious that Montaigne has to reach back into “olden times” in order to offer examples of the compatibility of learnedness and ability, as though this compatibility is not readily evident in modern times. Still, insofar as he is distinguishing learnedness and ability from one another, it must be on grounds other than necessity.
The grounds offered by Montaigne have to do with how knowledge is pursued and to what end. Or, to put it another way, it has to do with the conditions under which learning results in a mind that is “bent and huddled down by its burden” versus a soul that is expanded and able. Reflecting on why the learned are so often the butt of jokes in Italian comedies and the objects of disdain among some of the finest gentlemen, Montaigne says in the essay on pedantry
…that this evil comes from the bad way that men of learning have of going at the sciences; and that the way we are instructed, it is no wonder if neither the students nor the masters grow in ability, although they do make themselves more learned. In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgment and virtue, little news…
We labor only to fill our memory, and leave understanding and the conscience empty.
Here Montaigne is offering us an opportunity to reflect on how knowledge is pursued, for apparently it can be pursued badly or well. Pursuing knowledge badly has to do with looking at knowledge as so much furnishing, something that fills our heads. To have a head furnished with knowledge, to have a memory that is filled to capacity, may very well result in greater and greater learnedness. But as an end in itself, Montaigne finds it contrary to the spirit of education and therefore unworthy of those who dedicate their lives to educating the young. They may succeed in making themselves more learned in the process, and they may even succeed in turning out pupils who are very like themselves, suited to professorial chairs. But in pursuing learnedness for learnedness’ sake, they have failed to grasp the ends of their own profession, to cultivate judgment and virtue, which surely entails cultivating the child’s understanding and conscience, not just his or her memory.
In a way, Montaigne is taking these school masters to task for approaching their various subject matters as though the only faculty to which that learning is directed is the memory. These masters of memory in turn expect of their students only the exercise of their memories. This goes directly to the end of education. For Montaigne is clear that the learned—masters and students alike—are somehow too caught up in the importance of possessing knowledge. The alternative would be for education to address itself to something in addition to the faculty of memory. Presumably under this condition the soul might be expanded rather than the mind burdened, and ability would be the result. While I don’t pretend to know fully what ability means for Montaigne, it is clear from the examples he offers of ways in which men of learning have shown their ability—public matters, war, and counsel regarding the affairs of state—that it has to do at least with the mind’s capacity to go beyond what is given, (with the given being the purview of memory), toward responsiveness to what is given.
As we have seen in his prefatory remarks to Madame de Foix, judgment is the faculty that makes it possible to reach beyond what is given. It is the faculty that makes us more rather than less responsive to the experiences that confront us. As such, it is crucial to the exercise of understanding and conscience alike. This sort of mind is precisely what is lacking in those Montaigne refers to, again in his essay on pedantry, as the “little men of learning.” These are the learned whose knowledge does not result in ability. Their memories filled to capacity, the “little men of learning” are weighed down to the point that they have “sunk even beneath common sense.” For all of their learning they lack the agility to put into practice their numerous theories. Montaigne grants that “they have a full enough memory,” but they also have “an entirely hollow judgment, unless their nature has itself fashioned it otherwise.”
With this image of the “little men of learning” as background, Montaigne’s call for a tutor with a “well-made” rather than a “well-filled” head makes sense. Once again, the importance of motion in Montaigne’s thinking about education comes into play. A well-filled head has no capacity to effect the kind of change that Montaigne is after. It can present itself to the pupil and it can even preserve itself if the pupil is fertile ground for planting and for putting up those lessons in his memory once they have come to fruition. But all that the pupil is left with under this form of education is a well-filled head not very different from a well-stocked pantry. And a well-stocked pantry doesn’t amount to much when there isn’t an able cook in the house. The student must be able to acquire the stock, to be sure. But the student also must be able to take that stock and make something of it, a meal which holds out the power of nourishment through the exercise of the cook’s taste, choice, and discernment.
To affect the ability of the pupil in this way, the tutor would have to have the wherewithal to do more than fill up the child’s head. Rather, the tutor himself must have the kind of judgment that makes him able in his capacity as tutor. Before the tutor can even enter into the teaching relationship with the child he must first determine “the capacity of the mind he has in hand” and then “judge the child’s pace and how much he must stoop to match [the child’s] strength.” These determinations require understanding and character to be sure, aspects of a “well-made” head referenced explicitly by Montaigne; for the tutor must be able both to grasp the child’s capacity as well as exercise restraint and gentleness in actualizing it. But it is judgment that allows the tutor to tailor the education he offers to the child before him. And each child makes for a unique pupil, with a particular capacity and form of mind. “If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance,” Montaigne writes, “it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” The tutor with the well-made head will recognize the differences between children and therefore between pupils, and so the ability of each can be cultivated according to his nature.
Make no mistake. Montaigne is calling for a serious and critical look at how education is traditionally pursued. This statement is true not only for the time in which Montaigne was writing, but also for our own. The traditional approach seems to be of a piece with a kind of apprenticeship model, with the tutor’s responsibility located in his learnedness and his task located in passing on this learnedness to his student. But given the end of education on which Montaigne has predicated his account, the making of able human beings, the tutor’s responsibility must shift. The tutor is now responsible not just for his own learnedness, but for the exercise of his judgment in approaching his pupil. This requires a different sort of ability than the mere spouting of words, something that Montaigne takes to task quite vigorously both in the essay on pedantry and in the essay on the education of children.
But if the tutor’s responsibility changes on Montaigne’s view of education, so too does the responsibility of his charge. On the apprenticeship model, the child was responsible for absorbing and retaining his tutor’s learnedness. Under the new model, this will not be sufficient. Even as it is not sufficient for the tutor to spout words reflecting his learnedness, so too it is not sufficient that the student merely regurgitate the words of his tutor; Montaigne’s view of education goes beyond learnedness and therefore beyond memory, which is the faculty with which learnedness is principally concerned on Montaigne’s view. Continuing along gastronomical lines, Montaigne writes regarding the student,
Let him be asked for an account not merely of the words of his lesson, but of its sense and substance, and let him judge the profit he has made by the testimony not of his memory, but of his life. Let him be made to show what he has just learned in a hundred aspects, and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has grasped it and made it his own…It is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge food just as we swallowed it. The stomach has not done its work if it has not changed the condition and form of what has been given it to cook.
What then are the new responsibilities of the student such that he might get beyond rawness and indigestion in the direction of cooking and the change in condition and form that it makes possible? The student will be held to account not just with respect to the words of his lesson, but with respect to their sense and substance. But discerning sense and substance takes movement, unless one is willing to passively accept sense and substance on the authority of the tutor. In order to make sense and substance one’s own, one must sift through the lesson from many points of contact, as though through a sieve. Once this sifting has been done, perhaps only by the kind of groping, staggering, stumbling, and blundering that Montaigne reports to have done in making his essays, the student must judge what he has ended up with. In doing so, the student not only gets to the sense and substance of the lesson without accepting it merely on the authority of the tutor; he not only gets to see for himself what the author has seen; but in addition he engages in the increasing formation of his own judgment through his interaction with the lesson and with the tutor who guides him. It is presumably through this guidance that the child might come to more graceful motions in exercising his judgment than Montaigne claims to have managed. This formation of judgment is the most original work that the student can accomplish under the guidance of his education, even as it is the sweetest. Montaigne does not leave this point to the success or failure of his method of indirection. He makes it directly, suggesting at the same time the liberation of the student through the formation of judgment:
Let his tutor make his charge pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust: let not Aristotle’s principles be principles to him any more than those of the Stoics or Epicureans. Let this variety of ideas be set before him; he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt…For if he embraces Xenophon’s and Plato’s opinions by his own reasoning, they will no longer be theirs, they will be his. He who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing; indeed he seeks nothing…He must imbibe their ways of thinking, not learn their precepts. And let him boldly forget, if he wants, where he got them, but let him know how to make them his own. Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later. It is no more according to Plato than according to me, since he and I understand and see it in the same way. The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.
The child who can approach the tutor’s lessons in this fashion is surely an able student, able enough not only to escape the starvation of those little birds at the mercy of bad schoolmasters referenced by Montaigne, but also to make honey in the sweet style of bees. It is precisely this sort of student who is in a position to judge the profit of the lessons to which he or she has been directed, as Montaigne puts it “by the testimony not of his memory, but of his life.” This testimony will include not only demonstrations under a variety of aspects that go beyond what is given; it will include not only the student’s responsiveness to those “hundred aspects” under which the lesson might present itself; it will include not only the student’s essays to grasp and to own those lessons; but perhaps most important, this testimony will be in the student’s intellectual and ethical development, in the student’s powers of taste, choice, and discernment as they show themselves in the way the student thinks and in the way the student lives.
For Montaigne, there is not such a stark separation between thought and life, and knowing is not merely a matter of memory. Rather, knowing is a matter of our ability to think and to live freely, which in turn is a matter of having come to the sense and substance of our lessons not by the authority of others but by our efforts at developing our own judgment. Montaigne writes: “To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep. What we know rightly we dispose of, without looking at the model, without turning our eyes toward our book.” Montaigne’s “disposal” of what he has come to know, the “pouring out” referenced with the image of the Danaids, is primarily through his essays, which became a life work and a rich expression of the man himself. We might very well read these essays as the manifestation of Montaigne’s judgment in motion. The pressing question is whether it is the same natural judgment that he talked about at the beginning of the essay, or rather judgment that has been developed by his education despite its deficiencies. The answer to this question will determine whether Montaigne finally offers any substantial way out of the skepticism he has introduced regarding the power of education to transform us, his many fine words notwithstanding; it will also confirm or deny the legitimacy of reading Montaigne as an author who is also a tutor, engaging in indirection for the purpose of educating the judgment of his reader.
I propose that in the spirit of his requirement that the tutor should exercise judgment when he begins putting the child’s mind through its paces, “sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way,” Montaigne shifts his approach to the education of his reader’s judgment at the end of his essay—in this case, from letting her clear her own way by indirection to clearing the way for her more directly. I will end tonight with a brief reflection on the final pages of his essay.
Coming to the conclusion of some reflections on speech, Montaigne, with the lightest of touches, reveals more directly the importance of judgment for his reader’s understanding of the essay on the education of children. He writes,
The imitation of speech, because of its facility, may be quickly picked up by a whole people; the imitation of judgment and invention does not come so fast. Most readers, because they have found a similar robe, think very wrongly that they have hold of a similar body. Strength and sinews are not to be borrowed; the attire and the cloak may be borrowed. Most of the people who frequent me speak like these Essays; but I don’t know whether they think like them.
Here the inimitability of judgment is front and center. Not surprisingly given its intimate connection to ability in Montaigne’s thinking, it shares this inimitability with invention, but we will leave that to the side. Judgment, Montaigne says, is as difficult to imitate as the strength and sinews of another’s body. We may be able to dress up our judgment, perhaps even hiding its weakness and flabbiness by imitating the speech of those with stronger judgment. But it is the body underneath the clothing that is compared to judgment, even as it is the thought behind the essays within which judgment is to be found. No wonder, then, that Montaigne had to demonstrate his judgment indirectly, activating the judgment of his reader by giving less rather than more of his thinking in that regard. Judgment is precisely what we cannot access through imitation if it is to be what it is: an expression of the individual as unique as the strength and sinews of his or her own body.
The challenge for education aimed at the cultivation of judgment now becomes clear, and it makes sense of Montaigne’s claim that “the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” For education conceived conventionally, with its focus on learnedness and memory, is all about imitation. How difficult, finally, is that? Imitation doesn’t seem to qualify for the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge. But Montaigne has something far loftier in mind, something so revolutionary that it cannot risk being revealed so easily as to invite imitation, which would destroy it, or worse, dress it up as something too cheaply acquired.
This insight into judgment and its defiance of imitation sets the stage for Montaigne to return, for the first time since his prefatory remarks, to his own childhood education. In so returning, Montaigne playfully imitates the movements he made in his prefatory remarks: He begins with a reference to paternity; he returns to the topic of defectiveness in his own education; he makes thematic his relation to books; he draws his reader’s attention to her own judgment, and to his; and he shows the understanding of himself that he has for his judgment. But in imitating the same moves from the beginning of the essay, he says something different. In so doing, he clears the way for us to see that we were right in focusing on judgment, even in the early pages of the essay when it was more hidden.
Montaigne returns to the topic of paternity in reference to his father’s efforts on behalf of his education. He is less overtly critical of his father’s paternity in this respect than he was with his own paternity in begetting the essays, though there is more than one hint of irony in this regard. Montaigne recounts how his own education was important enough to his father to consult men of learning for the sake of pursuing Montaigne’s education in an innovative way. Montaigne focuses particularly on his education in the classical languages, where his father’s innovation manifested itself most clearly. With respect to Latin, Montaigne was given into the care of a Latin scholar from his earliest memory, so that Latin became his first language. The result was twofold: His Latin as a small boy was the envy of Latin scholars, and it allowed him to get through his studies early when his father gave in to conventional opinion and sent him along through the more traditional path of education.
But Montaigne downplays these accomplishments, even as he has consistently downplayed the learnedness which they suggest. He brushes past them to note his deficiency in Greek and to praise his father for the freedom he provided in every aspect of his early education, including having Montaigne awoken in such a manner that Montaigne was never startled or forced out of bed. As in the early pages of his essay, Montaigne’s deficiency is the context within which he draws his reader’s attention to her judgment, but this time directly. He writes,
This example will be enough to let you judge the rest, and also to commend both the prudence and the affection of so good a father, who is not at all to be blamed if he reaped no fruit corresponding to such an excellent cultivation. Two things were the cause of this: first, the sterile and unfit soil; for though my health was sound and complete and my nature gentle and tractable, I was withal so sluggish, lax, and drowsy that they could not tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play. What I saw, I saw well, and beneath this inert appearance nourished bold ideas and opinions beyond my years. I had a slow mind, which would go only as far as it was led; a tardy understanding, a weak imagination, and on top of all an incredible lack of memory.
Second, just as people frantically eager to be cured will try any sort of advice, that good man, being extremely afraid of failing in a thing so close to his heart, at last let himself be carried away by the common opinion…and fell in line with custom, having no longer about him the men who had given him those first plans, which he had brought from Italy.
What is the reader being left to judge here, such that it is important for Montaigne to call her judgment to her attention? Clearly the reference to those Italian schoolmasters, presumably the same ones who constantly show up as the butts of jokes in Italian comedies, makes the reader of Montaigne’s essay on pedantry skeptical about the approbation he affords his father’s paternal efforts in this essay. This would suggest that Montaigne planted the seeds of skepticism regarding his father’s efforts at the very beginning of the essay, when he suggested indirectly that his reader turn to the essay on pedantry in order to understand the essay on education. Yet Montaigne explicitly requires that his reader commend the elder Montaigne, and he offers more than one example to support that commendation, not least of which is the condition of freedom provided Montaigne in the course of his early education.
Though Montaigne, like any son, is certainly having a little fun at his father’s expense, his defense of his father seems sincere enough. But this only makes our question more pressing: What is “the rest” to be judged by the reader? For Montaigne does not stop by pointing out the deficiencies in his education, especially insofar as his father gives into convention and sends his son on the usual course. Montaigne goes on to point out the deficiencies in his very nature, which seem to have precluded the good effects even of his early education. Even as he absolves his education of failure except insofar as it was insufficient to affect the limits of his nature, which not insignificantly included “an incredible lack of memory,” but also slowness of mind, intellectual laziness, tardy understanding, and a weak imagination, he reinforces the skepticism that haunts his treatment of education. Our question changes: Is there anything left for the reader to judge?
I propose that it is the educability of judgment that the reader must judge, the crucial faculty of mind left out of Montaigne’s account of the limits of his nature at the end of the essay and the one emphasized in its natural capacity at the beginning of the essay. Specifically, I believe that it is left to the reader to judge the extent to which Montaigne’s essay has offered evidence that Montaigne’s judgment has been educated—beyond the natural capacity that was mentioned early on, and due to the “excellent cultivation” that Montaigne mentions after calling on his reader’s judgment in the long passage I just read. If it has not, then we must remain skeptical about education and the effect that it might have on the development of judgment. If it has, Montaigne has given us crucial evidence that his skepticism about education does indeed melt away when the aim of education is the cultivation of judgment.
Here, Montaigne’s relations to books, and especially the effect of his tutor on those relations, shed important light. For at the end of the essay we learn that as a child Montaigne did read books. The way that this came about is worthy of our attention. For even in the course of his more conventional studies, Montaigne’s father managed to find a tutor for his son perfectly suited to his nature. This tutor, judging clearly Montaigne’s general sloth and frivolity in his attitude toward education, noticed that if Montaigne ran across books that had not been assigned, he would read them. But he would pay little attention to his assigned lessons. Insofar as his tutor tailored his education to Montaigne’s taste in reading only what he chose rather than what was chosen for him, and insofar as the tutor was wise enough to leave good books around for Montaigne’s discernment, Montaigne did in fact become familiar with books—including books by Virgil, Terence, and Plautus—not to mention those Italian comedies!
Of course the methods of Montaigne’s tutor could not be tested “according to the lesson” insofar as there was no lesson except what Montaigne made of these books on his own. And so there were no opportunities for Montaigne either to demonstrate his learnedness or his familiarity with these books. But Montaigne does not now emphasize this situation as constituting a defect, and one is left with the impression that this tutor would have been worthy of Madame de Foix’s child should she choose to accept Montaigne’s one fancy regarding the education of children. For Montaigne learned to exercise his judgment freely through this unspoken collusion with his tutor. He expresses as much when he writes that if the tutor “had been foolish enough to break this habit, I think I should have got nothing out of school but a hatred of books, as do nearly all our noblemen. He went about it cleverly. Pretending to see nothing, he whetted my appetite, letting me gorge myself with these books only in secret, and gently keeping me at my work on the regular studies.” This unspoken collusion, so crucial for Montaigne’s learning if not for his demonstrable learnedness, (not to mention for his digestion!), was made possible by a tutor who understood, like Montaigne, that there may be more to be gained by the student in the silences, in the musings that must take place in his own head when the tutor is not “bawling” into his ears, than by the direct communication that turns students into vessels for filling up. On this reading, the indirection being performed by Montaigne is something he has learned through the cultivation of his judgment, which was guided by the efforts of his discerning tutor.
It is within the context of this educational experience with books that Montaigne turns to a frank assessment of himself, even as he did in the early pages when confronted with authors superior to himself. Here, however, the comparison is between himself and the conventional expectations others have of him. It is within this context that Montaigne offers directly a defense of himself based on the quality of his judgment and of the power of his mind to digest what was given him. For Montaigne “nourished bold ideas and opinions” beyond his years, despite the inert appearance that characterized him as a child and that he imagines others to judge him unfairly for even in his adulthood. Montaigne writes, after assessing how others must judge him, “Meanwhile, for all that, my mind was not lacking in strong stirrings of its own, and certain and open-minded judgments about the things it understood; and it digested them alone, without communication.”
Whereas it is clear at the beginning of the essay that Montaigne is talking about natural judgment, the case here looks different. Given what we have learned about his relations with books and the collusion of his tutor in that regard, it appears here that Montaigne is referring to judgment which has been nourished through education, albeit without communication. As we know both from Montaigne’s essay on pedantry and from his essay on education, digestion is an image very much connected with the education Montaigne envisions. It is precisely digestion that is lacking when education is pursued badly, and it is digestion that distinguishes the able student from the one who starves thanks to schoolmasters whose sole concern is with learnedness and with the cultivation of the memory that will hold it. Not insignificantly, it is also digestion that one has finally to accomplish for oneself, without communication.
By ending his final reflection on his childhood education with a reference to judgment and its relation to a mind capable of digestion, Montaigne confirms the various clues that he has given in both the essay on pedantry and the essay on education. Judgment, though a natural faculty, truly is educable. By cultivating it, education offers to the child the chance to be gourmet and gourmand—someone who might actually develop his strength and sinews through his own cooking efforts. Anyone who knows fine cooks knows that they are not imitators; they are not cowed by the conventions of those who are not adventurous eaters. That Montaigne’s judgment is cultivated through an unspoken collusion with his tutor only makes Montaigne’s own collusion with Madame de Foix through indirection more delicious. She, too, has been given the opportunity by a clever tutor, without communication, to try out her tastes, choices, and discernment as she thinks about the education of her unborn child.
In a playful turn, but one wonderfully consistent with the central role of judgment in making one able and not just learned, Montaigne follows his final account of judgment in the essay by pointing out his ability to act—in plays, to be sure, but in plays in which he assumed leading and varied roles with dignity. He writes “Shall I include in my account of this faculty of my boyhood, assurance in expression and flexibility in voice and gesture, in adapting myself to the parts I undertook to act?” Assurance, flexibility and adaptation are of course features of the ability to go beyond what is simply and immediately given. They are features of the ability to do more than memorize, more than imitate. It is no wonder, then, that Montaigne is moved to include in his account his ability to act. For successful acting on the stage is made possible by the same faculty of judgment that makes for able human beings, human beings who take their learning beyond learnedness by espousing it rather than merely lodging it within themselves. As such, stage acting is an apt contrast to the alternative metaphor with which Montaigne ends his essay. The assured, flexible, and adaptive agency expressed by the excellent actor is precisely the opposite of asses loaded down with learnedness, which Montaigne maintains to be the effect of a conventional education.
It looks like Montaigne has left us with more than skepticism as we consider the ends of education. For his skepticism subverts only the form of education that reduces the educational experience to yet another version of the vocational model, with schoolmasters who do nothing but weigh down their students like so many beasts of burden. With good enough memories and a knack for imitation, these little beasts may turn out to be pretty good replicas of those little men of learning. Montaigne, however, offers a radically alternative vision of education as the process by which natural judgment might be awakened and exercised freely. He does so by inviting his reader to go beyond memory and imitation, judging for herself what unfolds beneath the surface of the literal presentation of Montaigne’s essay. It is through this activity that Montaigne’s indirection can be accessed so that what he says directly can be judged. This indirection is no secret code to be broken only by a select few. It is, rather, an invitation to judgment vital to the education of children if education is to be truly nourishing and transformative.
If in pursuing our educations beyond childhood we can somehow digest the substance of what Montaigne has to say, engaging in the exercise of our judgment through the “best and most profitable” subjects of study, I suspect that we, too, will find our abilities enhanced through a freedom that is not burdened by the more conventional approach to education that is as fashionable in our day as it was in Montaigne’s. Like Madame de Foix, we too will “taste the sweetness” of education that Montaigne alludes to as he points her, without communication, toward her own judgment. Hopefully, these abilities will move us toward acting that is not merely performance, but rather the kind of agency that Montaigne shows throughout his essays in the truly liberal expression of his judgment that unfolds there. The rewards under this vision of education are shared by tutors and students alike, and the liberation that is possible is sweet and substantial. No one profession would be sufficient to manifest the richness of what might be gained through such an education, but no matter. If we are not willing to view education merely as a means to clearing a career path, we are willing to engage it in a manner that makes us more than able to choose that path well. Choosing freely and well is no mean end, and while we at St. John’s may not agree with Montaigne’s view of learnedness simply—yes, freshmen, we expect you to learn your Greek paradigms!—we can agree with the value he places on learning beyond learnedness. For in learning beyond learnedness, we engage in an education whose end goes beyond the ways in which we go about making a living toward the ways in which we go about making a life. I wish our newest members of the St. John’s community just such an education.
“Of the Education of Children”, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame, p. 124.
See Montaigne’s remarks to Madame Diane de Foix, to whom the essay “Of the Education of Children” is written. In explaining to her how he has come around to writing an essay on this topic, he writes “Now, Madame, if I had some competence in this matter, I could not use it better than to make a present of it to the little man who threatens soon to come out so bravely from within you (you are too noble-spirited to begin otherwise than with a male).”, p. 109.