11/05/2018 by Michael Brosnan |

Saying No to the Packhorse School of Education

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In William Faulkner’s novel, “Requiem for a Nun,” one of the characters utters the now-famous, often-repeated line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Faulkner’s novel, the meaning is clear enough. The way the characters lived in their early lives, their experiences good or bad, play out in the present and drive the plot.

More broadly, the notion of the past not being past applies to so many aspects of our lives. We are all the living embodiment of past dreams and decisions. They shape more of our present than we often care to admit. Tradition shapes us. Family life shapes us. Culture shapes us. Nature and nurture are our parents, too. Informed by all that has fed and guided us, we live in our present and build our future.

This, of course, is as true in education as in any field. What we do in schools today is informed by the thinking and writing of Confucius, Socrates, and Aristotle. It is guided by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, shaped by John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner, and Maria Montessori. In our classes, so much depends upon Jean Piaget and Carl Rogers, upon Maxine Greene, Ted Sizer, Angela Duckworth, and so many more.

Whenever we talk about what matters in schools, we inevitably draw on the work of these writers and thinkers. Even if we’ve never read them, they are present in our schools and classrooms. They are in us.

I was reminded of this truth earlier this month when I turned to another important, but lesser known player in educational philosophy: Michel de Montaigne. In many of his essays, he addresses the question of learning, but his most pointed essay on the subject is “On the Education of Children.” It was written in 1575 — and while you wouldn’t mistake it for a modern essay, it’s almost shocking how his views shine a bright and poignant spotlight on just about any contemporary education debate.

I say we wouldn’t mistake him for a contemporary writer for a few reasons. For one, he goes on too long, too discursively, for the attention span of contemporary readers. He relies on long sentences with numerous asides. He peppers just every paragraph with the references to Classical literature. He is also crazily in love with commas.

But his tone and voice feel remarkably fresh, honest, openhearted, and engaging. It’s easy to see why he was such a popular writer in his time and why much of his writing endures. If I were living in his time, I’d certainly want to spend a few evenings with this guy, and push him a bit more on the question of quality education.

Early in “On the Education of Children,” Montaigne expounds at length about the perils of relying on imitation as a writer. At first, this feels like an annoying aside, as if he forgot he was writing about education. But he does come around to make the connection — to the increasingly valued notion that our job is to educate each child to be the best and brightest version of herself. Our goal should never be cookie-cutter kids. Indeed, throughout the essay, Montaigne wrestles with the question of infusing students with knowledge that we find valuable vs. teaching them intellectual and social-emotional skills and setting free their imagination. (For a modern-day exploration of this topic, see the writing of Sir Ken Robinson.)

Montaigne — who addresses this essay to a friend, Madame Diane de Foix, who lost her husband in war and is about to give birth to their child — would have been among today’s outspoken critics of standardized tests, probably for any reason, but certainly as a measure of what a child knows and can do. Anticipating the work of William James and John Dewey, Montaigne advocates for context and experience over rote learning. He champions educators who lean away from pedantry — disparaging the sage on the stage who barks out supposed wisdom for students to more quietly regurgitate in test form. He rails against corporal punishment and overemphasis on book learning.

Montaigne doesn’t propose any specific formula, but pointedly encourages some balance between modeling learning and allowing independence. He argues for a basic grounding in moral and intellectual principles. Of course, he’s also a big proponent of hands-on learning, time for reflection, creative expression, the iterative process, and lots of play. If one is hiring a tutor, he encourages a tutor who is more “well-made than a well-filled head.”

What puzzles me now, of course, is why, 443 years later, we still haven’t figured out how to build a school system around these principles. Many educators think along Montaigne’s lines today — as they have in every generation. But the system as a whole since WWII, at least, has leaned toward an industrial model — or maybe it’s best described as a culturally indoctrinating model. We may bend it away for a while, but it finds a way to lean back into standardization. Even worse, we seem to be comfortable with a two-tiered version of this system — an AP-heavy one for the wealthier communities and a simplified, underfunded, discipline-focused version for the rest.

While I’m encouraging educators to read Montaigne’s essay, I mostly want to draw attention to the continuity between his thinking on education in the 16th century and the better education research today. Much of what Montaigne says about adolescence mirrors what brain science is now telling us clearly. We need to think about the social-emotional development of children and teens as much as their intellectual development. Brain science tells us that the prefrontal cortex of adolescents is growing rapidly. Adolescents and teens are learning how to focus and hold their attention. They are learning how to make decisions and how to control their own emotions. They are learning how to interact socially with each other and the adult world. They are learning what they care about. It’s a long, slow process. A key goal in school should be to help them navigate these waters.

A recent report from the Alliance for Excellence in Education examines the effects of culture and identity on teenagers, based primarily on insights developed through brain science. One key finding is the need for greater student agency. “We should be looking at agency and voice for students,” said Winsome Waite, a co-author of the Alliance consensus report. “Students taking their own path in class may seem to be a negative. We want them to have the opportunity to manage [their] own thinking and take ownership of their learning.”

Through his experience, observation, and intuition, Montaigne understood this social-emotional focus. He says that children should be curious, but also “abominate impertinence,” submit to truth. He says that the student should “let his conscience and virtue be eminently manifest in his speaking.” He wants children to have deep and abiding respect for the natural world, for all other species. He encourages “valor, temperance, and justice.” He wants children to know “the difference betwixt ambition and avarice” and to be clear about “what makes us free.” He writes, “Away with the violence! away with the compulsion!”

And he argues steadily for a commitment to the social good — in what both teachers and students do. This is not always easy. Especially in independent schools, where the majority of students come from lives of relative privilege, there is a tendency to slide into thinking formal education is primarily for personal gain — the brass-ring philosophy. On the other hand, in a world that seems on fire, we also know we absolutely must educate children for citizenship. One of the reasons teaching is such a difficult profession — “the greatest and most important difficulty of human science,” Montaigne writes — is that it’s never OK to only say one is being paid to teach history or science or fourth grade. Teachers shapes lives that shape cultures that shape the world — every day, in large and small ways.

One of the surprises in Montaigne’s essay is his insistence that “the most magnificent sign of wisdom in a continual cheerfulness….” I found myself staring at this sentence for a while, thinking about the current statistics about teenage anxiety and depression. I know that no adult sets out in the morning to make the world as miserable as possible for his or her children or students, but one might argue we have a bad habit of doing this more often than we realize. At least, we tend to do this if we are not vigilant, if we are not more deliberate about what we do as parents and educators.

In schools, Montaigne encourages us to slow down and ask essential questions. What are the qualities of a good education? Where is the balance between imparting knowledge and encouraging children to explore the world? How much information really matters? What do we know of the emotional lives of our students? How do we encourage exploration and creativity? Where is the joy?

Late in the essay, he writes of his friend’s child to come, “I would not have his spirit cowed and subdued, by applying him to the rack and tormenting him, as some do, fourteen or fifteen hours a day, and so make a packhorse of him.”

None of us know what the future holds. But I think we can agree that nothing good will come of a world crowded with human packhorses.

Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor with a particular interest in education and social change. His latest book of poetry, “The Sovereignty of the Accidental,” was recently published by Harbor Mountain Press. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan54@gmail.com.

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