Montaigne: On Learning

In Chapter 25, ‘On Schoolmasters’ Learning’, Montaigne reflects on the fact that schoolmasters are often portrayed as buffoons. How is it, he asks, that people of learning can be presented as stupid? More pointedly, why is that not an exaggeration? Why is it that so many ‘smart’ people are legitimately giant blundering clowns? In his words, “how can it happen that a soul enriched by so much knowledge should not be more alert and alive?” Montaigne also poses a second, opposite question: how is it that “a grosser, commonplace spirit can without moral improvement lodge within itself the reasonings and judgements of the most excellent minds which the world has ever produced?” To us in the modern day it’s not necessarily that surprising: all Montaigne’s noticed here is that intelligence doesn’t operate along a singular axis. We obviously have all our little axioms about being book-smart vs street-smart, emotional intelligence – all these different ways of trying to articulate the idea that there are different types and ways of being smart. Being able to write a great essay doesn’t mean that you’re morally upstanding. But there’s also another element here – one that often goes unnoticed.

Montaigne’s question about stupid smart people is prompted by his basic assumption that education makes you a better person. Knowledge should make you more alert and alive; excellent reason and judgement should morally improve you. That’s the base assumption. And it’s fine to talk about how there’s different types of intelligence or whatever, but even that isn’t quite addressing the core idea. Montaigne gets that there’s different types of intelligence – but he sees them as fundamentally hierarchical. If you’re a plumber, you need to know how to plumb – so you have a specific knowledge set, but as a set it’s inferior. It’s not rocket science. That’s why Europeans focused so much on the Ancient Romans – the belief was that the Romans had their shit together, that they had a smarter and therefore morally superior culture, and it was therefore worth studying that culture specifically because it held the pathway to glory and success. That’s literally why Montaigne’s dad raised him speaking Latin as a first language: he wanted Montaigne to be smart like the Romans, and so he raised him speaking their language – to no discernible effect, as far as I can tell. That’s not to bash Montaigne – he’s a very clever guy – but I’m not convinced he’s received some special benefit as a result of having Latin as a first language.

(As a side note, the same logic of Roman superiority is currently at play among the far right. They’re very concerned about the superiority of Western culture, especially as contrasted with supposedly ‘inferior’ cultures (which basically just means Muslims and black people). They’ve subsequently resurrected the early modern obsession with Roman culture to fortify their racist nonsense.)

Anyway, Montaigne tries to resolve his problem by suggesting that people who learn too much are overcome by knowledge, in the same way that you can over-water a plant. Good try, but zero marks: it’s just that there’s some people who have trouble with social cues who also seem to gravitate towards scholarly pursuits. It’s a job that fits their temperament. So that’s a bit of a stumble on his part. No worries though: he tries again in Chapter 26, ‘On Educating Children’, where he sets up a distinction between knowledge and judgement. “Teachers are forever bawling into our ears as though pouring knowledge down a funnel,” he says. But that approach creates a really derivative form of understanding; in his view, it’s not about being able to recite facts, it’s about being able to make good judgements. “Let him [the student] not so much learn what happened as judge what happened.” It’s less dates and names and more judgements about the relevant events: “less to stamp the name of the place where Marcellus died as how his death there showed him unworthy of his task.” 

That idea of judgement is really interesting, because it’s a lot more bespoke than something like knowledge. It’s much more about transfer – for instance, if you’re really good at judging the distance between cars when you’re changing lanes in traffic, maybe you’d also be really good at shooting a moving target. It’s the same basic set of judgements, regarding speed and vectors and relative movement. The term isn’t a magic bullet, in that judgement isn’t like this underlying singular entity or anything like that. Being good at judging movement doesn’t make you good at judging the stock market. But I think there’s some value to the idea of learning how to make good decisions. It’s something that applies across a whole heap of different domains. It unites diverse subject areas in fascinating ways. By way of comparison, one of the things people talk about in education today is learning how to learn. I think that’s important and fine, but personally I prefer the focus on judgement. For me as an English graduate, you could say that I’ve learned how to learn, but it’s a bit too vague. What it really means is that I’ve learned how to evaluate sources, digest and synthesize large amounts of information, and then re-present that information within a specific framework and towards a specific goal. Each step involves a series of judgements that I’ve become better at making over time.

You could conceptualise this division as learning vs. skills, but I’m not really entirely happy with that split either. Montaigne’s idea of judgement is of something much wider than mere skills. It incorporates your worldview, your perspective on things. If you never get out, your perspective will necessarily be limited by the place of your upbringing: “We are all cramped and confined inside ourselves: we can see no further than the end of our noses … when frost attacks the vines in my village, my parish priest talks of God being angry against the human race.” If an educator’s job is to cultivate judgement, then it’s not just building hand-eye coordination or impeccable research skills. It’s just as much about encouraging philosophical judgements, about the way we distinguish between right and wrong, and about the way we see ourselves within the wider context of the universe. That’s an interesting priority for an educator to have. Plus, if educators really were judgement-cultivators, then you’d expect the best educators to be great judges themselves. That means you wouldn’t be getting the buffoon teachers that Montaigne notes in his initial analysis. In fact, he would say that the fact that buffoon teachers exist at all is proof that education isn’t working properly. The solution, in his view, is an education that revolves around making better judgements. Food for thought.

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