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 emulation1, 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 others.
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.