We Are What We Learn

The principle difference between who we are today, versus every other potential version of who might have become, boils down to what we have learned along the way.

The authorship of The Education of Children is traditionally ascribed to Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE), the Greek biographer and historian. For a number of reasons, most scholars suspect that Plutarch could not possibly have written it, but for the sake of brevity and custom, I will refer to Plutarch as the author.

The essay argues that a “good education and proper training” is the chief ingredient that leads towards virtue and contentment in life. There is no happiness without learning. To say that education is paramount is an understatement; “the beginning, middle and end” of our children’s happiness and moral excellence depends on how we instruct them. “All other advantages” our children might have in life are small and trivial in comparison to the education we provide. (Plutarch, Moralia 5C, trans. Babbitt)

Consider, Plutarch urges, the limited nature of everything else we impart to our children. We all know that it is desirable to be well-descended, to come from a noble family line, and to be of “good birth” — but we cannot take credit for this. “It is an advantage which must be credited to one’s ancestors.” (5D)

What about riches? “Wealth is held in esteem, but it is a chattel of fortune, since oftentimes she takes it away from those who possess it, and brings and presents it to those who do not expect it.” The bigger the inheritance you leave for your children, the more lucrative a target they become for thieves and swindlers. Furthermore, wealth can be a property of the good and the evil alike, so what is the point in leaving your children with a lot of money if you deprive them of an understanding about what is truly valuable? (5D)

Having a good name, glory, and a high reputation in the community is a good thing, but it is fickle and unstable — all too easily maligned by gossip and rumours. Beauty, health, and strength are prized, but guaranteed to be temporal and fleeting. (5E) No matter how good your genes are, you can neither take credit for them nor consider them an eternal inheritance.

But learning, of all things in this world, is alone immortal and divine. Two elements in man’s nature are supreme over all – mind and reason. The mind exercises control over reason, and reason is servant of the mind, unassailable by disease, unimpaired by old age. For the mind alone grows young with increase of years, and time, which takes away all things else, but adds wisdom to old age. War, again, like a torrent, sweeps everything away and carries everything along in its current, but learning alone it cannot take away. (5E-F)

Plutarch’s thesis is straightforward: because happiness and contentment in life depend on learning — “and not upon accidental advantages” — parents ought “to make nothing of more importance than the education of their children” (6A). Training of the mind and reason is the only recourse we have for thwarting the otherwise immutable dictates of chance and fate. While he later admits that social and economic disparity create an unlevel playing field, Plutarch still insists that the first responsibility of every parent is “to provide the best education for their children” that they can possibly afford (8E-F). After all, if training children to live well and wisely is not the parent’s most crucial mandate and responsibility, then what is, exactly?

If we accept Plutarch’s argument, we then might reflect on the role of education in our own lives. We are not, as a modern incarnation of Plutarch might say, the mere accidental byproduct of a heredity gene pool. Well, we might be that, but we are also more. Who we have become — in mind and in reasoning — has been etched and carved by what we have learned and the people who have taught us along the way. Imagining ourselves apart from our education is to imagine people we have never met before. We are what we have learned, and what we learn today will inform who we become tomorrow.

In his essay, On educating children, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) delves further into the role that learning plays in who we become as people. Montaigne’s appreciation for the importance of education stems from his appreciation of human potential. Consider, for instance, the legendary Greek general Themistocles. When Montaigne reflects on the deeds, victories, and accomplishments of such a great man, he can not help but consider how unlike himself Themistocles used to be. Themistocles was once an ignorant, dependent, and uneducated little child; Themistocles started out like every other person. However, Themistocles would go on to earn the reputation of being one of the bravest, smartest, and greatest figures of ancient Athens. As far as Montaigne reckons, difference between an ignorant, nondescript Themistocles and famous Greek general Themistocles is what and how Themistocles learned about himself and others.

Education is, in Montaigne’s mind, the ground of our becoming. It makes us. We cannot extract Themistocles’ education and upbringing from his life and end up with the same great Themistocles in the end.

To think, then, that education is achieved by simply chaining a child to a pile of books and forcing them to memorize facts is to miss the instrumental importance of learning in the formation who we become. “What a wretched ability it is which is purely and simply bookish!” exclaims Montaigne. “Book-learning should serve as an ornament not as a foundation.” Of course, Montaigne loves his books dearly, but he argues that a true love of knowledge yields resoluteness, faithfulness, and purity. Everything else a student might be able to regurgitate from rote memory are “merely cosmetic” bits of data.

Do you want to train children well? Then you must teach them to be able to learn from anything and anyone — not simply from a curriculum you picked for them. In the real world, life is about the new and the unpredictable, which means that every exam you administer is at least partly obsolete before it is even graded. A student ought to take leave of their tutor or alma mater equipped to “sound out the capacity” of every new proposition and person they meet: “a herdsman, a mason, a wayfarer.” Even from the ignorant and foolish the student is prepared to learn, even if only to observe how the consequences of their poor behaviour are instructive for their own acquisition of wisdom. Everything has something to teach them; “nothing goes wasted” as they enter life to learn from it. If you want to create a great Themistocles, you need to train him as a boy to learn from everyone.

If releasing self-educating learners into the world is the ultimate goal of education, then the educator’s first most important task must be to “tempt” the student “to want to study and to love it: otherwise you simply produce donkeys laden with books.” In the end, graduating your pupils with a “pannierful full of learning” but without the ability to think for themselves is to do them a disservice that might well haunt them the rest of their lives. “Learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her,” concludes Montaigne. We mustn’t educate children so that they will simply walk away thinking that they learned everything we know, but we must help them learn the joy of educating themselves.

(Earlier versions of some of this post appeared in Caesura Letters: Volume XV – Arising and Passing. To mark a year since the Caesura Letters project came to an end, Volume XV is currently available for free. Share the gift of contemplation this holiday season by sharing this link with others.)