Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

The art of education

I don’t have much confidence in kindergartens and other inventions whose aim is to educate through amusement. It’s not a good method for adults. I could cite people who pass for being well educated and are bored by The Charterhouse of Parma or The Lily in the valley. They read only second-rate works, where everything is arranged to please at first glance; but in giving way to these easy pleasures, they lose a higher pleasure that they could have gained with a little courage and attention.

There’s no experience that better raises a person than the discovery of a superior pleasure they would not have known if they hadn’t first taken a little trouble. Montaigne is difficult; it’s that we first have to get to know him, to find our way about, and find ourselves within the work; it’s only then that we discover him. The same for geometry from putting boxes together; that can be entertaining, but rigorous problems give a much sharper pleasure. In the same way the pleasure of reading a work at the piano can’t be felt at all in the first lessons; one has to know how to be bored at first. This is why you can’t get a child to taste the arts and sciences as one tastes chocolate or jam. The human being is formed by difficulty; the true pleasures have to be won, they have to be earned; one has to give before receiving. That’s the law.

The trade of entertainer is in demand and well paid and, at bottom, secretly despised. What shall we say of those shallow weekly magazines, full of  pictures, where all the arts and sciences are put within reach of the most cursory look?  Travel, radium, aeroplanes, politics, economics, medicine, biology, one picks up everything; and the writers have removed all the thorns. This meagre pleasure is boring; it gives a distaste for things of the mind, which are severe at first, but delicious. I’ve just mentioned two novels that are hardly read. How many unknown pleasures and which everyone could get for themselves on condition of a little courage! I’ve heard the story of a child, loved too much, who was given a puppet theatre for New Year’s Day, and who sat down in the audience like an old theatre-goer, while his mother went to a lot of trouble to make the characters move and invent the stories. In a regime like this, thought gets fat like a chicken. I prefer a lean thought that hunts its game.


Jean Geoffroy: En classe, le travail des petits


Especially with children, who have so much freshness, so much strength, so much keen curiosity, I don’t want them to be given the nut already shelled. The whole art of education is, on the contrary, to get the child to take some trouble and rise to the level of a mature human being. It’s not ambition that’s missing here; ambition is the motivation of the child’s mind. Childhood is a paradoxical state where children find they cannot remain; growth imperiously accelerates this movement of going beyond oneself which, later, will slow down too much. Mature human beings should say to themselves that they are, in a sense, less reasonable and less serious than a child. Of course, there’s frivolity in the child, the need for movement and noise; that’s part of their games; but the child should also feel itself grow up when it passed from games to work. I’d like to see this fine passage, not left unnoticed, but solemnly registered. The child will be grateful to have been forced; it will despise you for flattery. An apprentice is in a better regime; he experiences the seriousness of labour; except that, by the very necessities of labour, his character will be better trained, not his mind. If everyone learnt to think as they learn to solder, the people would rule.

Now, once we approach real thoughts, we are all subject to the initial condition of receiving without understanding, and through a kind of reverence. Reading is the true worship or cult, as the word culture tells us.  Opinion, example, rumour of glory prepares us properly. But beauty even more. That’s why I’m a long way from thinking that a child should understand all they read and recite. All the poetry for children, like Louis Ratisbonne and others, dishonours the mind for ever. So take La Fontaine rather than Florian; take Corneille, Racine, Vigny, Hugo.

But that’s all too strong for children?  Yes, I hope so. They’ll be drawn first by the harmony. To hear within oneself fine things, like a music, is the first meditation. Sow real seeds, not sand. And let them see the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael; and let them hear Beethoven in the cradle.

How do we learn a language?  Through great authors, not otherwise. Through the most concise, the richest, the deepest sentences, and not through the inanities of a manual of conversation. First learn and then open all the treasures, all the jewels under a triple lock. I don’t see how children can raise themselves up without admiration and veneration; that’s what makes them children, and maturity consists in going beyond these feelings, when reason endlessly develops all human richness, that was only sensed at first. Children create a very great idea of maturity; but this hope should itself be gone beyond. Nothing is too good for this age.

P Normand 8/1/14; P Education no. 5

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

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