As I was saying , Ken Robinson speaks about the youngest children in our schools being the best at divergent and creative thinking, and he mentions there being clear evidence of the decline in these skills and abilities as children get older and move through the school system.
He might also have said something about the decline in children's curiosity and also in their willingness to ask questions as they move through 10 years of schooling, so that by the time they get to 15/16 (at the latest) all they really want to know at school is whatever they need to pass their exams. This is an appalling situation.
Some years ago Melvyn Bragg interviewed the wonderful Gore Vidal, and Gore said something very similar about schools and what our entire education system does to children's interest in learning.
"Our education system is designed to kill all curiosity. l seldom encounter a boring six year old. But I never get to see an interesting sixteen year old. What has the 10 years of our education system done?"
Oxzen originally wrote about this interview back in 2008, in Layer 41. See also Layer 104 - its encouragement to read Vidal's "Perpetual War" essays, and its concerns about what Obama can realistically do to change the intellectual climate and the culture of America.
Since then, of course, we've seen the rise of the Tea Party and the imbecilic influence of Fox News making things even worse, incredible as it now seems. To be sure, the majority of Americans deserve a lot better. It's clearly extremely painful for Mr Vidal to contemplate all this.
In another section of this interview Gore talks about his love of Michel de Montaigne, and of his essays. He says to Bragg that he now prefers reading and writing essays, and no longer feels so passionate about fiction. He explains that it's the writer's "voice" that he values in essays - which is the key to giving the writer real immortality.
"Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (February 28, 1533 – September 13, 1592) is one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre and is popularly thought of as the father of Modern Skepticism. He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdote and autobiography - and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as "Attempts") contains, to this day, some of the most widely influential essays ever written.
He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?'). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly - his own judgment - makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling." - Wikipedia
Montaigne himself said this about his work:
"For these are my own particular opinions and fancies, and I deliver them as only what I myself believe, and not for what is to be believed by others. I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself, who, also, shall, peradventure, be another thing tomorrow, if I chance to meet any new instruction to change me. I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others."
And so should say all of us.
On the subject of children and education Montaigne said this:
"The greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children. For as in agriculture, the husbandry that is to precede planting, as also planting itself, is certain, plain, and well known; but after that which is planted comes to life, there is a great deal more to be done, more art to be used, more care to be taken, and much more difficulty to cultivate and bring it to perfection; so it is with men; it is no hard matter to get children; but after they are born, then begins the trouble, solicitude, and care rightly to train, principle, and bring them up.
Cubs of bears and puppies readily discover their natural inclination; but men, so soon as ever they are grown up, applying themselves to certain habits, engaging themselves in certain opinions, and conforming themselves to particular laws and customs, easily alter, or at least disguise, their true and real disposition . . .
We often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time, in training up children to things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit . . ."
"Montaigne is a great French Renaissance thinker who took himself as the great object of study in his Essays. In studying himself Montaigne is studying mankind. He attempted to weigh or 'assay' his nature, habits, his own opinions and those of others. He is searching for truth by reflecting on his readings, his travels as well as his experiences both public and private."
You can access all of Montaigne's essays here.
"'Tis the custom of pedagogues to be eternally thundering in their pupil's ears, as they were pouring into a funnel, while the business of the pupil is only to repeat what the others have said: now I would have a tutor to correct this error, and, that at the very first, he should, according to the capacity he has to deal with, put it to the test, permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn. Socrates, and since him Arcesilaus, made first their scholars speak, and then they spoke to them.
It is good to make him, like a young horse, trot before him that he may judge of his going and how much he is to abate of his own speed, to accommodate himself to the vigor and capacity of the other. For want of which due proportion we spoil all; which also to know how to adjust, and to keep within an exact and due measure, is one of the hardest things I know . . .
Such as, according to our common way of teaching, undertake, with one and the same lesson, and the same measure of direction, to instruct several boys of differing and unequal capacities, are infinitely mistaken; and 'tis no wonder, if in a whole multitude of scholars, there are not found above two or three who bring away any good account of their time . . .
Our minds work only upon trust, when bound and compelled to follow the appetite of another's fancy, enslaved and captivated under the authority of another's instruction; we have been so subjected to the trammel, that we have no free, nor natural pace of our own; our own vigor and liberty are extinct and gone . . .
Our masters stick [knowledge], full feathered, in our memories, and there establish them like oracles, of which the letters and syllables are of the substance of the thing. To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it or fumbling over the leaves of his book. A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it, according to the opinion of Plato, who says that constancy, faith, and sincerity, are the true philosophy . . .
Conversation with men is of very great use, and travel into foreign countries; not to bring back (as most of our young monsieurs do) an account only of how many paces Santa Rotonda is in circuit; or of the richness of Signora Livia's petticoats; or, as some others, how much Nero's face, in a statue in such an old ruin, is longer and broader than that made for him on some medal; but to be able chiefly to give an account of the humors, manners, customs and laws of those nations where he has been, and that we may whet and sharpen our wits by rubbing them against those of others. I would that a boy should be sent abroad very young, and first, so as to kill two birds with one stone, into those neighboring nations whose language is most differing from our own, and to which, if it be not formed betimes, the tongue will grow too stiff to bend.
Let his conscience and virtue be eminently manifest in his speaking, and have only reason for their guide. Make him understand, that to acknowledge the error he shall discover in his own argument, though only found out by himself, is an effect of judgment and sincerity, which are the principal things he is to seek after; that obstinacy and contention are common qualities, most appearing in mean souls; that to revise and correct himself, to forsake an unjust argument in the height and heat of dispute, are rare, great, and philosophical qualities.
In this conversing with men, I mean also, and principally, those who only live in the records of history; he shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages.
Human understanding is marvelously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses. One asking Socrates of what country he was, he did not make answer, of Athens, but of the world; he whose imagination was fuller and wider, embraced the whole world for his country, and extended his society and friendship to all mankind; not as we do, who look no further than our feet.
A scholar shall be taught to know . . . what it is to know, and what to be ignorant; what ought to be the end and design of study; what valor, temperance and justice are; the difference between ambition and avarice, servitude and subjection, license and liberty; by what token a man may know true and solid contentment; how far death, affliction, and disgrace are to be apprehended . . . by what secret springs we move, and the reason of our various agitations and irresolutions: for, methinks, the first doctrine with which one should season his understanding, ought to be that which regulates his manners and his sense; that teaches him to know himself, and how both well to die and well to live. Among the liberal sciences, let us begin with that which makes us free . . .
After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric, and the science which he shall then himself most incline to, his judgment being beforehand formed and fit to choose, he will quickly make his own.
The way of instructing him ought to be sometimes by discourse, and sometimes by reading, sometimes his governor shall put the author himself, which he shall think most proper for him, into his hands, and sometimes only the marrow and substance of it; and if himself be not conversant enough in books to turn to all the fine discourses the books contain for his purpose, there may some man of learning be joined to him, that upon every occasion shall supply him with what he stands in need of, to furnish it to his pupil.
And who can doubt, but that this way of teaching is much more easy and natural than that of Gaza, in which the precepts are so intricate, and so harsh, and the words so vain, lean, and insignificant, that there is no hold to be taken of them, nothing that quickens and elevates the wit and fancy, whereas here the mind has what to feed upon and to digest. This fruit, therefore, is not only without comparison, much more fair and beautiful; but will also be much more early ripe.
'Tis a thousand pities that matters should be at such a pass in this age of ours, that philosophy, even with men of understanding, should be looked upon as a vain and fantastic name, a thing of no use, no value, either in opinion or effect, of which I think those ergotisms and petty sophistries, by prepossessing the avenues to it, are the cause.
And people are much to blame to represent it to children for a thing of so difficult access, and with such a frowning, grim, and formidable aspect. Who is it that has disguised it thus, with this false, pale, and ghostly countenance? There is nothing more airy, more gay, more frolic, and I had like to have said, more wanton. She preaches nothing but feasting and jollity; a melancholic anxious look shows that she does not inhabit there.
Demetrius the grammarian finding in the temple of Delphos a knot of philosophers set chatting together, said to them, "Either I am much deceived, or by your cheerful and pleasant countenances, you are engaged in no very deep discourse." To which one of them, Heracleon the Megarean, replied: "'Tis for such as are puzzled about inquiring whether the future tense of the verb Ballo be spelt with a double l or that hunt after the derivation of the comparatives cheiron and beltion, and the superlatives cheiriston and beltiston, to knit their brows while discoursing of their science, but as to philosophical discourses, they always divert and cheer up those that entertain them, and never deject them or make them sad."
The soul that lodges philosophy, ought to be of such a constitution of health, as to render the body in like manner healthful too; she ought to make her tranquillity and satisfaction shine so as to appear without, and her contentment ought to fashion the outward behavior to her own mold, and consequently to fortify it with a graceful confidence, an active and joyous carriage, and a serene and contented countenance. The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that of things in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.
It is [philosophy] that calms and appeases the storms and tempests of the soul, and who teaches famine and fevers to laugh and sing; and that, not by certain imaginary epicycles, but by natural and manifest reasons. She has virtue for her end; which is not, as the schoolmen say, situate upon the summit of a perpendicular, rugged, inaccessible precipice: such as have approached her find her, quite on the contrary, to be seated in a fair, fruitful, and flourishing plain, from whence she easily discovers all things below; to which place any one may, however, arrive, if he know but the way, through shady, green, and sweetly flourishing avenues, by a pleasant, easy, and smooth descent, like that of the celestial vault.
'Tis for not having frequented this supreme, this beautiful, triumphant, and amiable, this equally delicious and courageous virtue, this so professed and implacable enemy to anxiety, sorrow, fear, and constraint, who, having nature for her guide, has fortune and pleasure for her companions, that they have gone, according to their own weak imaginations and created this ridiculous, this sorrowful, querulous, despiteful, threatening, terrible image of it to themselves and others, and placed it upon a rock apart, among thorns and brambles, and made of it a hobgoblin to affright people.
If this pupil shall happen to be of so contrary a disposition, that he had rather hear a tale of a tub than the true narrative of some noble expedition or some wise and learned discourse . . . I see no other remedy, but that he be bound prentice in some good town to learn to make minced pies, though he were the son of a duke; according to Plato's precept, that children are to be placed out and disposed of, not according to the wealth, qualities, or condition of the father, but according to the faculties and the capacity of their own souls.
Epicurus, in the beginning of his letter to Meniceus, says, "That neither the youngest should refuse to philosophize, nor the oldest grow weary of it." Who does otherwise, seems tacitly to imply, that either the time of living happily is not yet come, or that it is already past.
And yet, for all that, I would not have this pupil of ours imprisoned and made a slave to his book; nor would I have him given up to the morosity and melancholic humor of a sour, ill-natured pedant; 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 pack-horse of him.
Neither should I think it good, when, by reason of a solitary and melancholic complexion, he is discovered to be overmuch addicted to his book, to nourish that humor in him; for that renders him unfit for civil conversation, and diverts him from better employments. And how many have I seen in my time totally brutified by an immoderate thirst after knowledge?
I have heard men of good understanding say, these colleges of ours to which we send our young people (and of which we have but too many) make them such animals as they are.
'Tis not a soul, 'tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him. And, as Plato says, we are not to fashion one without the other, but make them draw together like two horses harnessed to a coach. By which saying of his, does he not seem to allow more time for, and to take more care of, exercises for the body, and to hold that the mind, in a good proportion, does her business at the same time too?..................................................................
As to the rest, this method of education ought to be carried on with a severe sweetness, quite contrary to the practice of our pedants, who, instead of tempting and alluring children to letters by apt and gentle ways, do in truth present nothing before them but rods and ferules, horror and cruelty. Away with this violence! away with this compulsion! than which, I certainly believe nothing more dulls and degenerates a well-descended nature.
The world is nothing but babble; and I hardly ever yet saw that man who did not rather prate too much, than speak too little. And yet half of our age is embezzled this way: we are kept four or five years to learn words only, and to tack them together into clauses; as many more to form them into a long discourse, divided into four or five parts; and other five years, at least, to learn succinctly to mix and interweave them after a subtle and intricate manner: let us leave all this to those who make a profession of it.
"From the moment of his birth, Montaigne's education followed a pedagogical plan sketched out by his father and refined by the advice of the latter's humanist friends. Soon after his birth, Montaigne was brought to a small cottage, where he lived the first three years of life in the sole company of a peasant family, 'in order to', according to the elder Montaigne, 'draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help.'...................................................
Music was played from the moment of Montaigne's awakening. An épinettier (playing a zither original to the French region of Vosges) constantly accompanied Montaigne and his tutor, playing a tune any time the boy became bored or tired. When he wasn't in the mood for music, he could do whatever he wished: play games, sleep, be alone - most important of all was that the boy wouldn't be obliged to anything, but that, at the same time, he would have everything in order to take advantage of his freedom.
His fame rests on the Essais, a collection of a large number of short subjective treatments of various topics published in 1580, inspired by his studies in the classics, especially Plutarch. Montaigne's stated goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. Montaigne's writings are studied within literary studies, as literature and philosophy.
Inspired by his consideration of the lives and ideals of the leading figures of his age, he finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disdain for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for his timely death. He writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time, reflecting a spirit of skepticism and belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty. The longest of his essays, Apology for Raymond Sebond, contains his famous motto, "What do I know?"
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked strong feelings of passionate love because he saw them as detrimental to freedom. In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted uncritically. His essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.
In 1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the Château, his so-called "citadel", in the Dordogne, where he almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair. Locked up in his library, which boasted a collection of some 1,500 works, he began work on his Essais ("Essays"), first published in 1580. On the day of his 38th birthday, as he entered this almost ten-year period of self-imposed reclusion, he had the following inscription crown the bookshelves of his working chamber:
'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’ - Wikipedia
We could all benefit from asking ourselves simple existential questions every day, and through meditation open ourselves up to exploring our inner landscapes. A simple starting point might be, for example, what are our goals and purposes in life? And how do we become more self-actualised and more highly evolved?