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Monday, May 15, 2017

27.Montaigne's Curriculum: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Montaigne's Curriculum 

Between the fall of Rome in the late fifth century and the decline of monarchy in the 
eighteenth, secular schooling in any form was hardly a ripple on the societies of Europe. 
There was talk of it at certain times and places, but it was courtly talk, never very serious. 
What simple schooling we find was modestly undertaken by religious orders which 
usually had no greater ambition than providing a stream of assistants to the ecclesiastical 
bureaucracy, and perhaps molding the values of whatever future leaders proved 
susceptible; the few exceptions shouldn't be looked upon as the spark for our own 

schools. School was only a tiny blip on the radar until the last half of the eighteenth 

If you and I are to have a productive partnership in this book you need to clear your mind 
of false history, the type that clogs the typical school chronicle written for teacher 
training institutes where each fact may be verifiable but the conclusions drawn from them 
are not. Turn to typical school history and you will learn about the alleged anticipation of 
our own schools by Comenius, of the reformed Latin Grammar School founded by Dean 
Colet at St. Paul's in London in 1510, of the "solitaries of Port Royal," whoever those 
lonely men may have been; each instance is real, the direction they lead in is false. What 
formal school experimentation the West provided touched only a tiny fraction of the 
population, and rarely those who became social leaders, let alone pioneers of the future. 

You can disinter proclamations about schooling from Alfred's kingdom or 
Charlemagne's, but you can't find a scrap of hard evidence that the thing was ever 
seriously essayed. What talk of schooling occurs is the exclusive property of 
philosophers, secret societies, and a host of cranks, quacks, and schemers. What you 
never find anywhere is any popular clamor for a place to dump children called School. 
Yet while schooling is conspicuous by its absence, there's no shortage of intelligent 
commentary about education — a commodity not to be conflated with the lesser term until 
late in history. 

Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Pope Pius II, in his tract The Education of Children (1451), 
prescribes the reading and study of classical authors, geometry, and arithmetic "for 
training the mind and assuring rapidity of conceptions." He included history and 
geographyin his recommended curriculum, adding that "there is nothing in the world 
more beautiful than enlightened intelligence." The sixteenth century is filled with theories 
of education from men like Erasmus, Rabelais, and Montaigne. French schoolman 
Gabriel Compayre, in his History of Pedagogy (1885), holds all three in the highest 

Erasmus, Rabelais, and Montaigne. ..before pretending to surpass them, even at this day, 
we should rather attempt to overtake them, and to equal them in their pedagogical 

Like most educated men and women, Erasmus was his own teacher. He assigned 
politeness an important place in education: 

The tender mind of the child should. ..love and learn the liberal arts. ..be taught tact in the 
conduct of the social life. ..from the earliest be accustomed to good behavior based on 
moral principles. 

Montaigne, who actually attended school at Guienne from the age of six until he was 
thirteen, bequeathed an image of late sixteenth-century schooling amazingly modern in 
its particulars: 

Tis the true house of correction of imprisoned youth. ..do but come when they are about 
their lesson and you shall hear nothing but the outcries of boys under execution, with the 
thundering noise of their Pedagogues, drunk with fury, to make up the consort. A pretty 
way this to tempt these tender and timorous souls to love their book, with a furious 
countenance and a rod in hand. 

What Montaigne requires of a student seeking education is the development of sound 
judgment: "If the judgment be not better settled, I would rather have him spend his time 
at tennis." 

Montaigne was preoccupied with the training of judgment. He would have history 
learned so that facts have contexts and historical judgment a bearing on contemporary 
affairs; he was intrigued by the possibilities of emulation 1 , as were all the classical 
masters, and so informs us. He said we need to see the difference between teaching, 
"where Marcellus died," which is unimportant and teaching "why it was unworthy of his 
duty that he died there," which has great significance. For Montaigne, learning to judge 
well and speak well is where education resides: 

Whatever presents itself to our eyes serves as a sufficient book. The knavery of a page, 
the blunder of a servant, a table witticism. ..conversation with men is wonderfully helpful, 
so is a visit to foreign lands.. .to whet and sharpen our wits by rubbing them upon those of 

And in Gargantua the physician Rabelais set out a pedagogy quite in harmony with the 
experience-based curriculum of John Locke. 

When I started teaching, I was able to transfer principles of Montaigne to my classroom 
without any difficulty. They proved as useful to me in 1962 as they must have been to 
Montaigne in 1562, wisdom eternally sane, always cost-free. In contrast, the bloated lists 
of "aims," "motivations," and "methods" the New York City Board of Education supplied 
me with were worse than useless; many were dead wrong 

One important bit of evidence that the informal attitude toward schooling was beginning 
to break up in seventeenth-century New England is found in the Massachusetts School 
Law of 1647, legislation attempting to establish a system of schools by government order 
and providing means to enforce that order. Talk like this had been around for centuries, 
but this was a significant enactment, coming from a theocratic Utopia on the frontier of 
the known universe. 

Yet for all the effort of New England Puritan leadership to make its citizenry uniform 
through schooling and pulpit, one of history's grand ironies is that orderly Anglican 
Virginia and the heirs of Puritan Massachusetts were the prime makers of a revolution 
which successfully overthrew the regulated uniformity of Britain. And in neither the 
startling Declaration of Independence, which set out the motives for this revolution, nor 
in the even more startling Bill of Rights in which ordinary people claimed their reward 
for courageous service, is either the word School or the word Education even mentioned. 

At the nation's founding, nobody thought School a cause worth going to war for, nobody 
thought it a right worth claiming. 

Emulation or the imitation of notable models as an effective spring of learning; thus was the most ancient and effec- tive motivation to learn- 
to become like someone admirable — put to death deliberately by institutional pedagogy. 


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