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Advice from Montaigne: You Want to Be Wise? Don’t Read Too Much.

Author: Antoine Compagnon
Newspaper: Lithub
Date: Jun 27 2019

From A Summer With Montaigne by Antoine Compagnon, translated from the French by Tina Kover. Used with permission of Europa Editions. Translation copyright © 2019 by Europa Editions.

In any debate over education, someone invariably mentions Rabelais and Montaigne: Rabelais, who argued via his creations Gargantua and Pantagruel that a school should be an “abyss of knowledge,” and Montaigne, who preferred a man with a “well-made head” rather than a “well-filled” one. These two concepts, laid out here in opposition to one another, are the two objectives of every pedagogical endeavor: knowledge on one hand, and skills on the other, to use modern jargon. Montaigne protested against overstuffing pupils’ heads in the chapters “Of Pedantry” and “Of the Education of Children” in Book One of the Essays:

“In plain truth, the cares and expense our parents are at in our education, point at nothing, but to furnish our heads with knowledge; but not a word of judgment and virtue. Cry out, of one that passes by, to the people: ‘O, what a learned man!’ and of another, ‘O, what a good man!’—they will not fail to turn their eyes, and address their respect to the former. There should then be a third crier, ‘O, the blockheads!’ Men are apt presently to inquire, does such a one understand Greek or Latin? Is he a poet? or does he write in prose? But whether he be grown better or more discreet, which are qualities of principal concern, these are never thought of.”

Montaigne is putting the teaching practices of his time on trial. The Renaissance claimed to have broken with the darkness of the Middle Ages and rediscovered ancient learning, but quantity of instruction continued to be favored over the quality of its assimilation. Montaigne preferred wisdom to knowledge for its own sake, denouncing the folly of an encyclopedic education in which learning became a goal in itself. Knowledge, he believed, matters less than what one does with it; that is, practical know-how and life skills. People may admire wise men, but they respect knowledgeable men. Montaigne goes on to drive his point home:

“We should rather examine, who is better learned, than who is more learned. We only labor to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void. Like birds who fly abroad to forage for grain, and bring it home in the beak, without tasting it themselves, to feed their young; so our pedants go picking knowledge here and there, out of books, and hold it at the tongue’s end, only to spit it out and distribute it abroad.”

I will return to Montaigne’s suspicion of memory. He often apologizes for lacking a good memory, but deep down he does not mind at all, for memory is not an asset when it is used at the expense of judgment. Montaigne compares reading, and any kind of instruction, to digestion. Lessons, like food, should not only be tasted with the lips and swallowed raw, but chewed slowly, and ruminated on in the stomach, in order to nourish the body and mind with their content. Otherwise we vomit them back up, like foreign food. Education, according to Montaigne, is about acquiring knowledge; children must make this knowledge their own and integrate it into their own judgment.

The debate over the purpose of schooling has yet to be resolved. To sum up the positions, though, it would be unfair to pit Montaigne’s liberalism too hastily against the encyclopedism of Rabelais. First of all, though the letter from Pantagruel to Gargantua may seem to propose exhaustive, excessive learning, we must remember that it is intended for a giant. And the letter goes on to give a piece of advice that Montaigne would not have disagreed with: “Knowledge without Conscience is but the ruin of the soul.” Conscience—that is, honesty and morality—is indeed the end goal of all teaching. It is what remains when digestion is complete and we have forgotten almost everything else.

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