Michel de Montaigne’s Philosophy of Education ☆

“Personally I go uphill more firmly and surely than down.”(Michel de Montaigne, “On Educating Children”)

On the kick-off night of the Creativity, Imagination + Innovation Symposium, TC Professors David Hansen and Megan Laverty of the Philosophy and Education department hosted a workshop on the significance of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, in the field of education.  With a particular focus on Montaigne’s philosophy on education, Hansen and Laverty placed his vivid thoughts in the context of the Renaissance landscape in which they flowered.

The workshop began with the remark that while many of Montaigne’s thoughts were considered novel and radical in his time, his sentiments would surface over 300 years later in the work of revolutionary educational reformer and American philosopher John Dewey. Montaigne emphasized the child as a full human being, rather than one who is in the mode of preparing to live a full and real life. Montaigne also offered the reciprocal thought that “Learning is living, and living is learning”.  As Laverty explained, what importantly compliments this wonderful thought is the idea that we learn by engaging in activities, with our whole selves, and with things, rather than just words. As Montaigne would collaborate, “For when we interact with things in the world, we involve all of our senses.”

The professors revealed another familiar Deweyean thought which actually had roots in  Montaigne: the notion that an educator should first observe a child’s natural inclinations and then respond with a pedagogy.  With this perspective, the educator is not interested in merely filling the student with knowledge or content, but rather with guiding the child to discover activities that help the child to become “well-formed”. Here, Hansen and Laverty presented Montaigne’s oxymoronic thought: “severe gentleness”—about which a rich conversation ensued amongst the workshop attendees (and about which this blog-poster is still pleasantly puzzled and intrigued).

Hansen shared a story that suitably addresses Montaigne’s notion of “severe gentleness”: Apparently, Montaigne’s views on education were significantly influenced by the seriousness with which his father approached his son’s education. Upon hearing from some supposed expert that children should be woken gently, Montaigne’s father hired a musician to wake his son with a lute every morning.  And he also saw to it that his son’s first language was Latin.  Latin and lutes: severe gentleness.