The word ‘pedant’ has multiple, related meanings, most commonly: one who places too much weight on formal learning, the rules of learning, and learned details while remaining ignorant of larger principles, or one who ostentatiously demonstrates and makes a vain display of their knowledge.
In “Of pedantry,” Montaigne skewers both of these tendencies, while supporting the value of integrated learning that he will expand on further in the next essay (“Of the education of children”). The target of Montaigne’s often funny ire include philosophers, who are:
…stil trying to find out whether there is life, whether there is movement, whether man is something other than an ox, what it is to act and to be acted on, what kind of animals law and justice are.”
And “learned” men who have become totally dependent on the thinking of others, such as the man who:
…when I ask him what he knows, asks me for a book to point it out to me, and wouldn’t dare tell me that he has an itchy backside unless he goes immediately and studies in his lexicon what is itchy and what is a backside.”
At issue is the not-so-commonness of common sense, whether that deficiency stems from simple ignorance, excessive shallow learning, vanity, or hypocrisy. Equally contemptible are the “musicians who attune their flutes and do not attune their morals,” the “Lettre-ferits (letter-struck), men whom letters have dealt a hammer blow,” and the pedants who “go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the end of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it and scatter it to the winds.”
The bottom line for Montaigne, as he will document in some details in the next essay, is that learning is only valuable if one can synthesize what they have learned and make it their own, so that learning is not merely acquisition and memorization, but something so internalized as to be part of one’s habits, a “natural possession.”
Montaigne comes back again and again in these essays to those furnishings of our minds, to what we can own and make part of us. In this essay he speaks of the failure of the learner who returns with his soul “swollen” and “inflated” rather than “full” and “enlarged,” and how this outcome is, in fact, worse than doing nothing at all (not to mention the active harm done by their teachers, whom Montaigne compares to the Sophists).
I assume these weren’t abstract concerns for Montaigne and they certainly aren’t for me. I have more than my fair share of quirks, but I’m not going to reject a book because of a typo or insist on driving through a wall because of an inaccurate map. But I know very real people who have somehow managed to survive to a decent age who seem absolutely unable to discern any shades of gray when the world and what they believe they know differ…if they are self-aware enough to notice anything beyond their own concerns at all. And where do these folks tend to congregate? Academia, of course, where their limitations are less of a hindrance to their survival.
The need to differentiate between real and apparent learning is a key driver of contemporary pedagogy. It makes sense intrinsically, of course, but also as part of demonstrating the value of the less obviously useful arts and studies using the currency of application. It may be that, ultimately, pragmatic critics aren’t dissuaded from their critique of classical and liberal education, but at least the argument then becomes one of what uses are valuable rather than whether the learning is of any value at all…