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.
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.
Let us not therefore waste the earliest years.
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.