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What would classical preschool look like? – Quintilian on books & twaddle

Quintilian, an education philosopher of the first century AD, has much to say about the bringing up of children. His education philosophy does not begin when they enter school, but when they first start forming their first words and their first thoughts.

Today’s excerpt from The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being summarizes what Quintilian had to say about what we would call preschool and kindergarten, and it will probably rub you the wrong way no matter what you do with your young ones.

Let’s dig in.

Education is a life, and life does not begin at 7.

From the time a child is handed over to the care of a nurse, Quintilian said care must be taken about the kind of nurse and other companions the child has, for he will learn by imitation – imitation of speech, manners, and character. If possible, he says, the father and mother and everyone who daily interacts with the child should be educated, so that the child is surrounded by correct usage and good breeding.

Education is an atmosphere.

But then he turns to the proper age for beginning formal schooling, and at first I was taken aback. He argues that because learning is cumulative, the earlier you start, the more you’ll get.

CH070: Duties & Delights: Quintilian on Teachers & Students

I do not know what the common school practices were for his time, but I gather from his comments that boys were sent to school at 7, having received no reading instruction whatsoever.

He would prefer phonics and beginning handwriting and letter-learning to begin earlier than that. To that, we would concur.

He advises:

Let us not therefore waste the earliest years.

After all,

His mind must be occupied somehow or another.

And those who want to postpone any formal instruction until age 7, he argues, seem to have ulterior motives.

Those who disagree with me seem in taking this line to spare the teacher rather than the pupil.


Those however who hold that a child’s mind should not be allowed to lie fallow for a moment are wiser.

However, what does he mean when he talks of not wasting early years or letting a child’s mind lie fallow? Does he want 5-year-olds to attend school, to be taught formal lessons and learn material to be tested? What is it to not waste the early years?

What is education?

Quintilian is clear: he is speaking of a literary education, an education full of good books, good words, and good ideas.

Why, again, since children are capable of moral training, should they not be capable of literary education?

He might even be proposing a poll-parrot sort of program:

The elements of literary training are solely a question of memory, which not only exists even in small children, but is specially retentive at that age.

But, when looking at the big picture of his argument and not merely this single sentence, it’s clear Quintilian does not intend us to have kindergarteners memorize long strings of facts.

What is worth remembering, of putting in the memory? Literary ideas – he uses ‘literary’ multiple times. One almost wonders if Charlotte Mason ever read this essay (hint: she did).

Quintilian wants young children to be exposed to literary thought and literary quality, because they are naturally receptive and retentive at this age – so what they are exposed to will matter to their entire course of life.

He makes sure to clarify his position:

I am not however so blind to differences of age as to think that the very young should be forced on prematurely or given real work to do.

The student under 7, then, should not be made to do school work. But his environment should be rich and literary. There should be alphabet toys and stories. When he holds a pencil, he should be shown how to do so correctly. But he should not have to sit down to formal lessons and be made to learn particular things.

Above all things we must take care that the child, who is not yet old enough to love his studies, does not come to hate them.

What we want is a child who knows and loves words. After all, what matters is how much he cares, and about how many things he cares about. Quintilian doesn’t outright say that, but it is a natural conclusion and application of his argument – one made by one as brilliant as he.

We should not hold young children back, but we also should not push them forward:

You will hardly believe how much reading is delayed by undue haste. If the child attempts more than his powers allow, the inevitable result is hesitation, interruption and repetition, and the mistakes which he makes merely lead him to lose confidence in what he already knows.

Rather, we should take their nature into account:

Small children are better adapted for taking in small things, and just as the body can only be trained to certain flexions of the limbs while it is young and supple, so the acquisition of strength makes the mind offer greater resistance to the acquisition of most subjects of knowledge.

The “poll-parrot stage” is not a time to cram facts and chants, but to build habits and dispositions that will help him advance more surely and steadily when he does take to his books.

For our young ones, we should notice and capitalize on the fact that they love to learn:

the sight, handling, and naming of which is a pleasure.

Let us bring up our children, from birth, in a loving and literary atmosphere.

That is truly the classical approach.

In the next section, Quintilian tackles the question of whether in-home or public education is preferable. It’ll be another good one!

Learning what classical education really means from primary sources.

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  1. You are really making me want to read it – except that I have so many other books I’m supposed to be reading… It’s so interesting to see how the same educational concerns, like when to start “school”, haven’t really changed since ancient times.

  2. I love this, but I feel a bit guilty for not having been a better example sooner. :( I fear that a lot of my 2 oldest children’s bad habits are due to bad mothering in my first few years. I’m learning as I go, of course, and trust that God will work all things together for good, but it’s very easy for me to go into the “if I had not done _____, then they would not be “this” way.” I guess I just have to pray that God will use those things and remember that it’s not too late! I’m a work in progress!

    This is a really great series and I’m loving your podcasts! I don’t have time to read all of your posts, so the podcasts are so perfect! (I’m hoping Brandy follows suit!)

  3. Thanks, Mystie! I love your book reviews because I have my own mile-high reading list! As a retired preschool teacher, I wish I had this post to give my parents. Over the years, I tried all sorts of methods. In an effort to protect the children’s right to be children, eventually, I pretty much stopped planning lessons. I’d have an idea or two in mind, but became more attuned to teachable moments. Outdoor time, reading good books and habits because our primary focus. We did have a game called “School Time” where we pretended to be in a big kids class and would do our letters or numbers. This was usually once a week or so, if the kids were interested. Opportunities to explore were always available like writing, painting, cutting, gluing, decorating, play-doh, puzzles, string beads, etc., Circle Time was simply a read-aloud. Outside Time we talked about the weather and did Nature Walks in the woods. We practiced manners at snack and lunch. Most activities were beneficial to develop other skills that down the road the kids would need, but the kids never knew that. For the most part, I tried to create a gentle, loving atmosphere where they could just play! And they loved it! I miss those days, but now I am blessed to spend that time with my own grandchildren!

  4. I’m sorry if this was clearly mentioned i the article but i just can’t seem to understand, what are those habits and dispositions in the child that we should be nurturing instead so the child comes to love books when he is older? And how do we nurture them?

  5. Great post Mystie! I’ll be linking it this week :)

    I’ve had The Great Tradition in my Amazon cart for a very…long…time! I have since begun re-reading Consider This by Karen Glass with my CM Study Group and am feeling compelled to read a variety of ancient and contemporary works regarding education as Ms. Mason did. In light of being a crazy busy homeschool mom, It appears as though The Great Tradition may be a good start. I like the idea that if focuses on educational writings only since I don’t have a lot of time to wade through massive philosophy books….though it’s still a goal for grandma days ;-)

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