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Montaigne On Education Essay Ideas

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.

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Anne Lamont once said, “Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.” Perhaps Michel De Montaigne — one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance —understood this when he wrote about his trials so that his friends and family could forever hold a timeless frame of him — all of his opinions, thoughts, perspectives, and troubles laid out in the most vulnerable way.These trials, moreover, became a literary term for what we now call essays. This writing exercise was a way for him to observe his judgements, thoughts, and experiences. Objective, skeptical, hilarious, but undoubtedly brilliant, Montaigne’s perspective on everything from education, friendship, self-awareness, and philosophy, to his love for books and his unique perspective on cannibalism, are all timeless, practical, and worthy of rumination.

He forewarns the reader:

“I freely state my opinion about all things, even those which perhaps fall outside my capacity, and of which I do not for a moment suppose myself to be a judge. What I say about them, therefore, is meant to reveal the extent of my own vision, not the measure of the things themselves.”

It’s easy to immediately believe that anyone who writes and is constantly referring back to themselves is egotistical. This is definitely not the case for Montaigne. His essays offer the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to truly observe one’s own thoughts — an exercise of humility, self-awareness, and self-correction. As much as he strongly expresses his opinions, he also is relentlessly vulnerable and admits to his shortcomings.

Here’s a few passages that I marked in my notes as self-awareness. These are all brilliant words to live by:

“It must be explained to him that to admit any mistake he may find in what he has said, even though no one has noticed it but himself, is an act of good judgement and sincerity, and the chief virtues that he is pursuing; that obstinacy and contentiousness are common qualities, generally to be found in the meanest of minds; and that to change one’s opinion and correct oneself, to give up a false position at the climax of a heated exposition, is a rare, strong, and philosophical  virtue.”

“Mistakes often escape our eyes, but it is the sign of a poor judgement if we are unable to see them when shown to us by another. Knowledge and truth may dwell in us without judgement, and judgement also without them; indeed to recognize one’s ignorance is one of the best and surest signs of judgement that I know.”

“Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, ‘those for whom to live is to think.’” [End quotes are Cicero].

Because self-awareness is at the core of my writing and a popular topic on this blog, I can’t help but agree and cheer on Montaigne’s perspective. If you look carefully and pay attention to his words, you can almost get a glimpse of many different thinkers combined into one. Throughout the book, it’s obvious that Montaigne was deeply influenced by Seneca and the philosophy of Stoicism in its entirety, Plutarch, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.

Indeed, Montaigne, like myself, had a love for books. In the words of the translator, J.M. Cohen: “As he again and again insists, Montaigne was no scholar. He seldom read books through, but preferred to dip into them in search of arguments, anecdotes, and observations that threw light on his current interests.”

His perspective on education, learning, and the use of books is interesting and at times, for me at least, very strange. Here’s some quotes reflecting these topics:

“Who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing, and indeed is seeking nothing. [Quoting Seneca here] ‘We are not under a king: each man should look after himself.’ Let him know what he knows at least; he must imbibe their ways of thought, not learn their precepts; he may boldly forget, if he will, where he has learnt his opinions, so long as he can make them his own. Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them than to him that repeated them after him. It is no more a matter of Plato’s opinion than of mine, when he and I understand and see things alike. The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterwards turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own; it is thyme and marjoram no longer. So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows form others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgement. His education, his labour, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”

“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men. It is the understanding, said Epicharmus, that sees and hears: it is the understanding that turns everything to profit, that arranges everything, that acts, directs, and rules: everything else is blind, deaf, and soulless.”

“In books I only look for the pleasure of honest entertainment; or if I study, the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well.”

“The active pursuit of truth is our proper business. We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power. Truth is not, as Democritus said, hidden in the depths of the abyss, but situated rather at an infinite height in the divine understanding. The world is but a school of inquiry.”

Perhaps the strangest essay I read was his thoughts on cannibals. His understanding and philosophical stance just goes to show how there are always different ways of seeing things that appear strange, unusual, or bizarre. Montaigne says:

“Now, to return to my argument, I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people [cannibals], that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, expect that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything. These people are wild in the same way as we say that fruits are wild, when nature has produced them by herself and in her ordinary way; whereas, in fact, it is those that we have artificially modified, and removed from the common order, that we ought to call wild.”

Lastly, I would like to end with passages on his perspective on philosophy. As Seneca once said, “Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds.” It teaches us how to live and how to behave. It provides  ethical guidelines, a set of principles to abide to so that we may live well and not be pulled by irrational thoughts. He says:

“Our pupil should be told: what it is to know and not to know, what the aim of his study should be; what courage, temperance, and justice are; what the difference is between ambition and greed, servitude and submission, licence and liberty; by what signs one may recognize genuine and solid contentment; to what extent we should fear death, suffering, and shame, by what springs we move; and the reason for all the different impulses within us. For it seems to me that the first ideas which is mind should be made to absorb must be those that regulate his behavior and morals, that teach him to know himself, and to know how to die well and live well.”

“The mind that harbours philosophy should, by its soundness, make the body sound also. It should make its tranquility and joy shine forth; it should mould the outward bearing to its shape, and arm it therefore with a gracious pride, with an active and sprightly bearing, with a happy and gracious countenance. The most manifest sign of wisdom is a constant happiness; its state is like that of things above the moon: always serene.”

“Let not the youngest shun philosophy or the oldest grow weary of it. To do so is the equivalent to saying either that the time for a happy life has not yet come or that it is already past.”

Essays by Michel De Montaigneis a thought-provoking read, both timeless and practical. Each essay provides an opportunity to exercise your mind, to observe your own patterns of thinking, and maybe, to arrive at a deeper understanding of the subjects that are indeed part of our daily lives. His wisdom and worldview are at times refreshing, funny, objective as can be, but also applicable to our current endeavors. The joy of getting into the minds of great thinkers — through essays, interviews, or letters — is being able to extract wisdom to apply to your own life — to use them as heroes or mentors to guide you to more fruitful outcomes.