Saturday, July 11, 2009

Quintilian -- Early Influences for Children

Some more thoughts from Quintilian on early (pre-academic) education. Oddly enough, they remind me somewhat of Charlotte Mason's ideas, though they cover a less comprehensive ground. I think what seems familiar about it is that he seems to be aware that what the child is passively receiving through association with nurses and so on is laying the groundwork for future life. In other words, environment and early nurturing matter to him in at least two ways:

  • As a moral influence
  • As a language influence (since he was writing about raising an orator, and in the classical tradition language was the most crucial element in thought and learning, he thought that the kind of language the child was exposed to in his early years made a difference)
In both spheres (moral and linguistic) he was making the case that "habits" are important and given that children acquire either good or bad habits in early life, and those tend to become fixed over time, it makes sense to acquire as many good habits as possible and as few bad habits to unlearn as possible.

I also like his insistence that parents be as learned as possible, "even" mothers (not a given in ancient days, but the Romans did quite honor women in comparison to the Greeks, as you can see in the example of Cornelia Gracchus and note the famous story of her "jewels". This gives me an excuse to continue studying besides just WANTING to : ).

Quintilian assumes the well born boy will have a nurse and a tutor (a paedogogi, a Greek slave who was assigned to go with the child through his daily activities -- something like a governess in 19th century England).

1. Before all things, let the talk of the child's nurses not be ungrammatical.

We are by nature most tenacious of what we have imbibed in our infant years, as the flavor with which you scent vessels when new remains in them, nor can the colors of wool, for which its plain whiteness has been exchanged, be effaced. Those very habits, which are of a more objectionable nature, adhere with the greater tenacity, for good ones are easily changed for the worse, but when will you change bad ones into good?
2. In parents I should wish that there should be as much learning as possible.

Nor do I speak, indeed, merely of fathers, for we have heard that Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (whose very learned writing in her letters has come down to posterity), contributed greatly to their eloquence

3. (This part refers to the Greek slaves, designated tutors who took the boys to school and back and generally acted as their companions).

Of paedagogi this further may be said, that they should either be men of acknowledged learning, which I should wish to be the first object, or that they should be conscious of their want of learning; for none are more pernicious than those who, having gone some little beyond the first elements, clothe themselves in a mistaken persuasion of their own knowledge. Since they disdain to yield to those who are skilled in teaching and, growing imperious, and sometimes fierce, in a certain right, as it were, of exercising their authority (with which that sort of men are generally puffed up), they teach only their own folly
And in general, after advising parents to take as much care as they realistically can in these matters (another thing I like about him is his grave realism -- he acknowledges that most of us are working with various limitations so our job is to do the best we can with what we have available to us)
If I seem to my reader to require a great deal, let him consider that it is an orator that is to be educated, an arduous task even when nothing is deficient for the formation of his character; and that more and more difficult labours yet remain. There is need of constant study, the most excellent teachers, and a variety of mental exercises. 11. The best of rules, therefore, are to be laid down, and if any one shall refuse to observe them, the fault will lie not in the method, but in the man.


  1. It does parallel with Charlotte Mason, doesn't it, and also with TJEd. I sometimes tell my kids that one way to distinguish important ideas from passing fads is the similarity of the themes you see among important schools of thought.

  2. I saw you were reading TJEd and thought that it will be interesting to know what you think of it!

    I love reading a very old work and finding the author talking not so differently from how someone would talk in more recent times. ... very direct and common-sensical. It seems to me that some peoples' voices speak across the distance so well.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!