Michel de Montaigne gives advice to UK education secretary, Michael Gove

Michel de Montaigne was a sixteenth-century French philosopher with some distinctive views about education. He was sent to one of France’s best schools, the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, and passed every exam with flying colours. But many years after his graduation, he delivered a damning blow against it and many other so-called ‘good’ schools:

“I come back to the absurdity of our education system: it tries to make us not good and wise, but learned and brilliant. And it succeeds. We readily inquire of our star pupils, ‘Does he know mathematics?’ ‘Can he analyse poetry?’ But we never ask: ‘Has he become a better or a wiser person?’ We work merely to fill our memories with facts, leaving our understanding and our sense of right and wrong empty. But after we have been through school, if we are not kinder people and if our judgements are no wiser, then I would just as soon that pupils skipped their classes and spent their time playing tennis instead.”

Montaigne would of course have preferred students to go to school, but he wanted schools to teach them wisdom and virtue rather than merely how to spell and do maths accurately. He proposed a different kind of exam system, one that would (in addition to the basics, which Montaigne did not disdain) develop skills in wisdom – through a therapeutic method of studying literature, art and history, using these disciplines as case studies in how to live rather than just as a storehouse of facts to be learnt by rote. He saw the pursuit of happiness as the end goal of man, and felt that the current education system simply did not equip pupils with the right skills for this. As a result, he concluded: “I have seen in my time hundreds of craftsmen and ploughmen who were wiser and happier than learned merchants and statesmen.”

Montaigne particularly resented people who felt overly proud of their education simply because they could recite things off by heart. He came to know one supposedly very clever man who lived in his neighbourhood and knew lots of facts about history and the classics: “Whenever I ask this acquaintance to tell me what he knows about something, he wants to show me a book: he would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of scab and arse.”

Ultimately, Montaigne hated an education system that taught people to parrot things rather than how to think: “Nowadays, we are taught how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’; ‘This is morality for Plato’; ‘These are the ipsissima verba of Aristotle.’ But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do.”

Montaigne was out to mock a prevailing, almost mystical faith in the power of education. He pointed out that some of the least educated creatures on the planet often had the advantage over highly ‘educated’ human beings. With his trademark dry sense of humour, he remarked that, without trying, the humblest farm animal could exceed the philosophical detachment of the wisest sage of antiquity. Montaigne recounted that the Greek philosopher Pyrrho had once travelled on a ship which ran into a fierce storm. All around him passengers began to panic, afraid that the ship would sink. But one passenger did not lose his composure and sat quietly on deck, wearing a tranquil expression. He was a pig who had never been to school. Montaigne wrote: “Dare we conclude that the benefit of our education (which we praise so highly and on account of which we esteem ourselves to be lords and masters of all creation) was placed in us for our torment? What use is knowledge if, for its sake, we lose the calm which we would enjoy without it and which makes our condition worse than that of a farmyard animal?”

Of course, Montaigne respected learning and knew its advantages. But he made a series of points that continue to cast doubt on those who believe a little too fervently in the power of traditional education: “To admit that we have said or done one or two stupid things is not the point, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are all blockheads” – the biggest blockheads being people who can’t grasp that education must always aim to make us wise and happy, not just learned or prosperous.