For five days I’m writing about the most interesting methods people have used throughout history to raise brilliant children of all types. Yesterday I wrote the intro. to this series: Baby, Who Cares If It’s Cold Outside!
Amy Chua, the author of the controversial new book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the unabashed, if occasionally faux-contrite, heroine of her story. The message is clear: her musical prodigy daughters could not have attained their brilliant success without their tough-love mom. Chua is more than queen of her home. She’s more of a micro-managing-manic, dictator/empress combo. Chua’s emotionally abusive tactics aside, today we place tremendous value on a mother’s involvement in her childrens’ lives. But the truth is, loads of brilliant people from the past had little maternal influence as they grew-up. Still, the most striking truth I’d like to tell Amy Chua, is that the extreme tough-love stuff, may not be necessary either.
Read on for one super-interesting example that makes both my above points:
In early sixteenth-century France, the mayor of Bordeux, Pierre Eyquim read much and talked philosophy with whomever would listen– but his ignorance of Latin (the language of books), left him but a well-regarded dabbler. His son would have no such limit. Pierre Eyquim would make sure of that.
Before any Latin lessons, Pierre’s third baby boy–Michel needed to survive past infancy. The best way to do this, thought this father, is to raise him among peasants–and away from the soft life of the Eyquim family chateau. The elder Eyquim also hoped the boy would acquire, by osmosis, an intuitive knowledge of the commoner’s ways. This, Pierre seemed to think, would come in handy and even endear Michel to those same commoners he would surely rule some day.
So to toughen his son up, Pierre had baby Michel’s wet nurse remain in her own home. Michel went to her –instead of the other way around, and she raised him barefoot alongside her own children– plus the goats and chickens, in a thatched-roof peasant’s cottage. Michel did not smell, see or feel the soft touch of his real mother until his third birthday.
Then, the next phase of Pierre Eyquim’s plan began. Historian Sarah Bakewell says,
The second element of [Michel's] experimental education would prove totally incompatible with the first. Back in his family home [the grand chateau], little peasant Micheau was now to be brought up as a native speaker of Latin.
The little boy leaped–rather abruptly, from the peasants’ rough Perigorian to full Latin immersion, totally bypassing French.
Again, Sarah Bakewell says,
This was an astonishing project for anyone even to think of, let alone put into effect.
No one at home spoke any Latin. Finding a native Latin speaker would be almost impossible. But Pierre remained undaunted. He found a German tutor–who spoke flawless Latin but not a word of French, for his son. Everyone else in the household was banned from speaking to or around the little boy–until they could speak in educated Latin. The tutor became the most important person in Michel’s early childhood.
Whatever happened to this little child so oddly educated? He grew to become the most influential philosopher of the Renaissance–Michel de Montaigne.
Through the years, Michel de Montaigne recalled with fondness his father’s plans and ways. Of his early education and skills acquisition, he later wrote,
[I learned] without artificial means, without a book, without grammar or precept, without the whip, and without tears.
He also said,
My father and mother learned enough Latin…to understand it, and acquired sufficient skill to use it when necessary, as did also the servants who were most attached to my service. Altogether, we Latinized ourselves so much that it overflowed all the way to our villages on every side, where there still remain several Latin names for artisans and tools that have taken root by usage. As for me, I was over six before I understood any more French or Perigordian than Arabic.
What would compel Michel de Montaigne’s father to follow such a plan? Historian Sarah Bakewell says,
Command of beautiful and grammatically perfect Latin was the highest goal of a humanistic education: it unlocked the door to the ancient world…as well as to much of modern culture, since most scholars still wrote in Latin.
If you spoke well, you must be able to think well. Pierre wanted to give his son the best advantage imaginable: a link both to the lost paradise of antiquity and to a successful personal future.
Michel de Montaigne maintained a love of learning throughout his entire life and often credited his father for that gift. In turn, Michel gifted the Western world with some of its greatest ideas. He influenced Blaise Pascal, Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson and even helped usher in a new era of religious tolerance throughout Western Europe.
Not bad for someone who’s mother did not hold him or talk to him much! And also, not bad for someone who never really cried over his lessons.