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Desiderius Erasmus - On a liberal education for children

Sometimes, the Butterfly Defect (Gavriel Solomon) leads to something relevant and interesting. Here an excerpt from De pueris instituendis [On a liberal education for children], written by Desiderius Erasmus in Italy and published in 1529 which I accidentally came across. It is a clear statement of Erasmus’ enormous faith in the power of education, and in my opinion, and is both surprisingly current with respect to experience (learning by doing / inquiry learning) and instruction and still true.

First a piece of background information. Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1466-1536) was – among other things - a Dutch Renaissance humanist, social critic, and teacher. Amongst humanists, he enjoyed the nickname "Prince of the Humanists". and is surprisingly current with respect to experience (learning by doing / inquiry learning) and instruction.


§12 - The error of those who think that experience gives all the education that men need. 49 A-F

They err, therefore, who affirm that wisdom is won by handling affairs and by contact with life, without aid from the teaching of philosophy. Tell me, can a man run his best in the dark? Or, can a gladiator conquer if he be blindfold? The precepts of philosophy — which is knowledge applied to life — are, as it were, the eyes of the mind, and lighten us to the consciousness of what we may do and may not do. A long and manifold experience is, beyond doubt, of great profit, but only to such as by the wisdom of learning have acquired an intelligent and informed judgment. Besides, philosophy teaches us more in one year than our own individual experience can teach us in thirty, and its teaching carries none of the risks which the method of learning by experience of necessity brings with it. For example, you educate your son to the mystery of medicine. Do you allow him to rely on the method of "experience" in order that he may learn to distinguish between poisons and healing drugs? Or, do you send him to the treatises ? It is an unhappy education which teaches the master mariner the rudiments of navigation by shipwrecks: or the Prince the true way of kingship by revolutions, invasions or slaughter. Is it not the wise part to learn beforehand how to avoid mischiefs rather than with the pains of experience to remedy them? Thus Philip of Macedon put his son Alexander to school with Aristotle that he might learn philosophy of him, to the end that when a king he should be saved from doing things which must be repented of. Thus education shews us in brief what we should follow, what avoid ; she does not wait till we have suffered the evil results of our mistakes, but warns us in advance against courses which will lead to failure and misery. Let us, therefore, firmly knit up this threefold cord : let Nature be by Training guided to wise ends, let Nature and Training, thus united, be made perfect by right Practice.


Concerning the Aim and Method of Education - Desiderius Gerhard ErasmusWoodward, W. H. (Ed.) (1904). Desiderius Erasmus, Concerning the aim and method of education (pp. 191-192). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. https://archive.org/details/desideriuserasmu00woodiala

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