Why do we send our children to school, much less to a college or a university? I have put this question to any number of parents, teachers, and headmasters and only rarely received a better answer than “So they can get a good job.” Never having had what most people would call a good job, I take their word for it that taking out tonsils or keeping felons out of jail constitutes a good job, so long as it brings in more dian 100k in the second or third year.

But surely it does not take 20 years of schooling to learn how to draw up a contract or even to perform a bypass operation. These technical skills could be taught successfully to teenagers who would be ready to receive their licenses by the age they normally enter (or at least finish) college. In fact, many American parents who want to prepare their children for a vocation are looking away from traditional colleges, which cost annually as much as a lower-middle-class worker makes in a year, and they are turning to apprenticeships and community colleges as cheaper methods of acquiring “the job skills you need in this competitive world,” as the brochures put it, or “career training for the new millennium.”

I think we can take it as given that colleges and universities are a waste of time and moneys staffed, as they are, by lazy and incompetent anti-intellectuals—and while “higher” education has declined since the days of my youth, when I learned ancient Greek in a ramshackle Victorian house on Green Street in Charleston (or was it College Street?), American colleges have not amounted to much at any time in this century. Jacques Barzun and Thomas Molnar railed against the educational standards of the 1950’s and 60’s, and Albert Jay Nock was ridiculing the universities of his day over 50 years ago, pointing out that education had declined sharply between the 1880’s and the 1930’s. If there was a golden age of American education, it was clearly before the Revolution, when men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were growing up. It has been a hundred years since we had professors as educated as they were, to say nothing of presidents.

I also take it as given that there is a reason (apart from job skills or the need to reduce competition for jobs) that we stick young men and women in college for four to five crucial years of their lives. To discover that purpose, as it was once understood, we have to go back to the ideals of the Renaissance humanists or further still to Quintilian, who defined the end result of a training in rhetoric as a “good man skilled in speaking”; that is, a person of good character who had been trained to put his talents to useful purposes.

That ancient rhetorical curriculum, whose sources lie both in the Greek experience and in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, was eventually Christianized and turned into the medieval curriculum of “liberal arts.” In recent years, that expression, when it does not evoke a sneer, is usually glossed as the “liberating arts.”

I was surprised to learn that this interpretation goes back at least to Montaigne, who must have known that it was not literally true—that, in fact, the artes liberales (from Greek technai eleutherai?) were the pursuits worthy of a free man (as opposed to the training given to a slave, peasant, or manual worker). In his essay on the “Education of Children,” Montaigne wanted to debunk the French schooling of his day, and in writing about the proper subjects of study, he puts moral studies first, adding this curious aphorism: “Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that makes us free.” (“Entre les arts liberaux, commençons par l’art qui nous fait libres.”) Free from what? He does not say, although the purpose of Montaigne’s essay—of all his essays, in fact—is the type of liberation that has been sought by schoolmen throughout this century, and it is worth our effort to spend a little time wrestling with this slippery Frenchman of five centuries ago.

Montaigne began his education at home, under a system devised by an indulgent father who prescribed that nothing but Latin should be spoken in young Michel’s presence. By the age of five or six, he had learned enough to be able to read Latin for the rest of his life as if it were his mother tongue. Sent to an ordinary school, Michel rebelled against the routine and especially against the discipline: “I have always disliked this system of discipline in most of our schools. They might have erred with less damage on the side of indulgence. It is a veritable jail for imprisoned youth.”

Like nearly all modern educators, Montaigne believed that strict rules and severe punishments were counterproductive, and he wanted education to proceed according to the natural bent of the child. He was an early advocate, in other words, of “child-centered” learning, and he would make a science out of children’s games, which “are not games,” he said, and “have to be judged as their most serious activities.” What Montaigne failed—or refused—to consider is the basic purpose of education, which is not to stuff information into children’s heads or even to teach them Latin. “The end.” as Calder Willingham expressed it in the title of the only real novel ever written about the Citadel, “is a man.”

Montaigne agreed that the purpose of studying was not pedantry but character development, but like many social parvenus (his father was descended from a long line of increasingly wealthy merchants; his mother was a Protestant of Spanish Jewish background), he was more concerned with being a gentleman than with being merely a man, much less a good man. All healthy and successful cultures have been aggressiveK virile: Athens almost as much as Sparta, the Hebrews of Joshua’s time and the Romans of the early republic, medieval Europe and medieval Japan, frontier America.

To produce the tough and resolute men who create, sustain, and defend civilization requires a discipline that more closely resembles Parris Island than the Fantasy Island schooling in America that leaves no whim unfulfilled, no vicious tendency unstimulated. Imposing academic rigor and tough discipline may be the most difficult challenge faced by homeschooling parents, even those less indulgent than Michel’s father—in my own case, I have to confess to complete failure.

To make the process of learning easy and “fun” has been the object of educational reformers for the past several centuries. Walter Scott complained of this tendency in his own day, warning that, if children are taught to regard learning as a game, they will rebel against any learning which is necessarily serious. Montaigne was too dense even to learn from his own experience. Learning Latin as a native language, he never had to slog through day after day of rote memorization of vocabulary and grammatical paradigms. As a result, when the time came for him to learn Greek, as he confesses, he made no headway—nor with any other demanding subject.

Well, there is no harm in a gentleman not knowing Greek, he would say, but Montaigne’s indulged childhood had more serious consequences. His father, in the belief that children should not be startled first thing in the morning, had him awakened to music, and there is a luxurious, cowardly streak that runs through Michel’s life. As mayor, he refused to return to Bordeaux when plague broke out in the city. A pardonable offense, perhaps, but he was a weak sensualist in other matters. In his essay “On Experience,” he confesses that his sexual activity began so early that he could not remember when he had ever been chaste, and the dirty little stain running throughout his writings is an obsession with talking about sex, describing his bowel movements, and referring offhandedly to urination.

Montaigne had, quite simply, a dirty mind that he wanted to share with the world. It was wrong, he thought, to shield children from the facts of life. Even in dissipation, he says, the model student should outdo his comrades, and the ideal sage (as he observes in “On Experience”) should be as well versed in the mysteries of Venus and Bacchus as in other areas of life. Phis is not the robust paganism of the ancient world, but the sly and drooling neopaganism that dares not confront Christianity except with a sneer and a lie.

Montaigne spent his whole life alternately undermining the Church’s authority and ingratiating himself with those who exercised it. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia takes his deathbed theatrical display seriously—or pretends to. Perhaps he was serious. It is not for us to judge, but I have more confidence in the conversion of the combative atheist than in the professions of a lifelong hypocrite who feigned obedience while insinuating the poison of infidelity into the mainstream of French cultural life. Shelley, it has been thought, might have become a Christian, had he lived longer. Montaigne could have outlived Dracula and still died with a sneer.

If Christianity were superstitious bigotry, compared with the wisdom of Socrates and Plutarch, then the civilization of Christendom would be a barbaric deviation from the true path of enlightenment. This is precisely the position Montaigne takes in one of his most significant essays, “On the Cannibals,” where he slyly undermines the monarchy, the Church, and France itself by comparing them with the Latin American savages who are physically superior to Europeans and inferior in no other respect.

Montaigne may have been the first important multiculturalist in Europe, and his feigned preference for savages he had merely seen without knowing was only a ploy—just as his intellectual descendants in American universities prate about cultural diversity without ever learning the languages or cultures of other nations. “On the Cannibals” is not a singular outburst: His contempt for Christendom is a recurrent theme. In “On Experience,” for example, he preaches a doctrine of cultural diversity and human variability that would have delighted Margaret Mead. After a summary of the strange things other people do, Montaigne concludes: “Each nation has many customs and habits that are not only not known, but seem savage and bizarre to some other nation.”

Then how do we choose? Montaigne has no difficulty in deciding that other nations and cultures are superior to his own. While French legal institutions “by their lack of rule and form encourage disorder and corruption,” China is a “kingdom whose government and arts, without having any intercourse or knowledge of our own, surpasses what we have to offer in many branches of excellence.” In the “Apology for Raimond Sebond,” he takes the final step of equating man with the beasts to which he attributes rational powers: “When I play with my cat, who knows but that she regards me more as a plaything than I do her?”

E.J. Trenchman, a scholar and admirer of Montaigne whose “authoritative” translation of this passage I have quoted, describes the “Apology” as “the most important and most interesting of the Essays,” adding that it is “pretty clear, if we keep in mind Montaigne’s hint to the wise to ‘catch his meaning’ and read between the lines, that the title was intentionally misleading, and that the whole chapter is an attack on Christian beliefs in general.”

For this, among other reasons, Montaigne was put on the Index in the 17th century, and although less rigorous generations of Catholics have preferred not to understand the purpose of Montaigne’s relentless, Pyrrhonist skepticism—if only because he is one of the masters of French prose and (to give the Devil his due) a writer as engaging as Voltaire. But Diderot was correct in admiring Montaigne as his master, and the Jacobins were also right to want to remove his body to a shrine in Paris. (Unfortunately, in a classic Jacobin screwup, they got the wrong body.)

So now we know what it was that Montaigne wanted to liberate us from: from Christendom, from Christianity as a religion binding on our conscience and moral behavior, and from Christ himself This sly little Gascon is at once the foundation of Western self-hatred and one of the fathers of modern education. His celebrated “que sais-je?” is both a justification for his own self-abusing introspection and an invitation to the rationalist fury that Descartes—another hypocrite—unleashed upon the Christian world. It is the self-inflating irony of the teenager who asks, with a melodramatic flourish, “What do I know?” about this or that, meaning “I know as much as I need to know, with or without any of your so-called knowledge.”

Montaigne’s skepticism dissolves all faith, not just Christian faith, but faith in all forms of legitimate authority—that of parents, tradition, the Church. And not just the Catholic Church: Montaigne despised Luther for thinking he knew the truth or believing there was a truth that could be known. If decent American parents wish to set their children upon the proper path, whether they are planning a preschool program or a course of professional preparation, they had better begin with the recognition that the evils of modern education go back to the 16th century and that these evil principles are shot through our failing culture like streaks of gangrene through a rotting limb.

It is only fair to hold Montaigne responsible for the toxins he introduced into Europe. He is “that man by whom the offence Cometh,” as Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 18:7). “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life, halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”

Where was the Inquisition when we needed it?