Classical Education Scholé Reads

Classical Education: Quintilian on Educating the Young

Aside from Plato and Augustine, one author that I often see quoted among present-day classical educators and leaders is the work of Quintilian. So in the spirit of ad fontes, I took it upon myself to read more from primary sources about classical education by the OG classical educators themselves.

Quintilian (c. 35-100 AD) was a Roman educator and rhetorician who was best known for his work, Institutio Oratoria, in which he addresses the “art of speaking.” In the very first chapter, Quintilian begins by arguing for the seminal importance of the early years in the training of an orator. He also noted that other teachers who were training in the art of oratory during his day weren’t concerned about the foundations for “they either despised the preliminary stages of education or thought that they were not their concern.”

My hope to is to bring to light some of the classical pedagogies of childhood education that reflected Greco-Roman thought in the earliest centuries as recorded in the Institutio Oratoria. Quintilian emphasizes that, “Studies, like men, have their infancy, and as the training of the body which is destined to grow to the fulness of strength begins while the child is in his cradle and at his mother’s breast, so even the man who is destined to rise to the heights of eloquence was once a squalling babe, tried to speak in stammering accents and was puzzled by the shapes of letters. Nor does the fact that capacity for learning is inadequate, prove that it is not necessary to learn anything.”

Emphasis on Character

Quintilian commends the essential matters of his teaching which reflects the very heart of classical education:

My aim, then, is the education of the perfect orator. The first essential for such an one is that he should be a good man, and consequently we demand of him not merely the possession of exceptional gifts of speech, but of all the excellences of character as well.

Character formation or “excellences of character” is just as important as the “exceptional gifts of speech” of an orator. Eloquence is useless without the cultivation of character or virtue. In fact, this very much reminds me of what apostle Paul wrote in this letter to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3, ESV) Without love which undergirds all our gifts, we are nothing.

Not Wasting the Early Years

Quintilian recognizes that childhood education is important in the formation of a skilled orator.

The art of oratory includes all that is essential for the training of an orator, and that it is impossible to reach the summit in any subject unless we have first passed through all the elementary stages. I shall not therefore refuse to stoop to the consideration of those minor details, neglect of which may result in there being no opportunity for more important things, and propose to mould the studies of my orator from infancy, on the assumption that his whole education has been entrusted to my charge.

He also noted that there are those who wish that children are not be taught how to read before the age of seven, but Quintilian argues that “those however who hold that a child’s mind should not be allowed to lie fallow for a moment are wiser.” He notes that if children are capable of moral education, they are also capable of literary education. And those who wish otherwise are merely sparing the teacher and not the pupil. In this case, Quintilian gives the weightier responsibility to the teacher. This is because Quintilian believes that much could be gained from teaching in the early years:

Such progress each successive year increases the total, and the time gained during childhood is clear profit to the period of youth. Further as regards the years which follow I must emphasise the importance of learning what has to be learnt in good time. Let us not therefore waste the earliest years: there is all the less excuse for this, since 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.

Don’t waste the early years, he seems to be clamoring for.

Amuse not Embitter

Although the teacher must take the opportunity to begin teaching in the early years, this is not to say the very young “should be forced on prematurely or given real work to do.” Quintilian warns that care must be given so that the young “does not come to hate” his studies and “dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even when the years of infancy are left behind.”

In order to avoid bitterness, Quintilian suggests that,

His studies must be made an amusement: he must be questioned and praised and taught to rejoice when he has done well; sometimes too, when he refuses instruction, it should be given to some other to excite his envy, at times also he must be engaged in competition and should be allowed to believe himself successful more often than not, while he should be encouraged to do his best by such rewards as may appeal to his tender years.

It seems to suggest that learning must be fun, coupled with praise, discipline, competition, and rewards. There are all welcome employments to the classical educator.

One Small Thing

Another wise and practical thing Quintilian advises is to teach one little thing at a time, “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.” Further, he writes:

Vessels with narrow mouths will not receive liquids if too much be poured into them at a time, but are easily filled if the liquid is admitted in a gentle stream or, it may be, drop by drop; similarly you must consider how much a child’s mind is capable of receiving: the things which are beyond their grasp will not enter their minds, which have not opened out sufficiently to take them in.

Consider the child’s capabilities. Care must be given in the giving and receiving of knowledge. Don’t drown small children with vast knowledge which shall go over their heads. Multum non multa. Less is more.

Don’t Play Favorites

Quintilian gives the example of teaching Alexander in an effort to make a point:

Let us assume therefore that Alexander has been confided to our charge and that the infant placed in our lap deserves no less attention than he—though for that matter every man’s child deserves equal attention. Would you be ashamed even in teaching him the alphabet to point out some brief rules for his education?

We are not to play favorites, even if your student is Alexander the Great. Each child deserves equal attention.

These are the things that I have gleaned from my first reading of the first chapter of the Institution Oratoria. For the next part of this series, I shall cover what Quintilian has written about literacy.

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