1644 | London

Misspent Youth

John Milton repairs the ruins of education.

The end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection. But because our understanding cannot in this body found itself but on sensible things, nor arrive so clearly to the knowledge of God and things invisible as by orderly conning over the visible and inferior creature, the same method is necessarily to be followed in all discreet teaching. And seeing every nation affords not experience and tradition enough for all kind of learning, therefore we are chiefly taught the languages of those people who have at any time been most industrious after wisdom; so that language is but the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known. And though a linguist should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he have not studied the solid things in them as well as the words and lexicons, he were nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman, competently wise in his mother dialect only. 

Hence appear the many mistakes which have made learning generally so unpleasing and so unsuccessful. First we do amiss to spend seven or eight years merely in scraping together so much miserable Latin and Greek as might be learnt otherwise easily and delightfully in one year. And that which casts our proficiency therein so much behind is our time lost partly in too oft idle vacancies given both to schools and universities, partly in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose themes, verses, and orations which are the acts of ripest judgment and the final work of a head filled by long reading and observing. These are not matters to be wrung from poor striplings, like blood out of the nose or the plucking of untimely fruit: besides the ill habit which they get of wretched barbarizing against the Latin and Greek idiom, with their untutored Anglicisms, odious to be read yet not to be avoided without a well-continued and judicious conversing among pure authors digested, which they scarce taste. Whereas, if after some preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory, they were led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lessoned thoroughly to them, they might then forthwith proceed to learn the substance of good things, and arts in due order, which would bring the whole language quickly into their power. This I take to be the most rational and most profitable way of learning languages, whereby we may best hope to give account to God of our youth spent herein.

And for the usual method of teaching arts, I deem it to be an old error of universities not yet well recovered from the Scholastic grossness of barbarous ages, that instead of beginning with arts most easy and those be such as are most obvious to the sense, they present their young unmatriculated novices at first coming with the most intellective abstractions of logic and metaphysics. They, having but newly left those grammatic flats and shallows where they stuck unreasonably to learn a few words with lamentable construction, and now on the sudden transported under another climate to be tossed and turmoiled with their unballasted wits in fathomless and unquiet deeps of controversy, do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning, mocked and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements while they expected worthy and delightful knowledge; till poverty or youthful years call them importunately their several ways and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary or ignorantly zealous divinity—some allured to the trade of law, grounding their purposes not on the prudent and heavenly contemplation of justice and equity which was never taught them but on the promising and pleasing thoughts of litigious terms, fat contentions, and flowing fees. Others betake them to state affairs, with souls so unprincipled in virtue and true generous breeding that flattery and court shifts and tyrannous aphorisms appear to them the highest points of wisdom, instilling their barren hearts with a conscientious slavery. Others, lastly, of a more delicious and airy spirit retire themselves to the enjoyments of ease and luxury, living out their days in feast and jollity—which indeed is the wisest and the safest course of all these, unless they were with more integrity undertaken. And these are the fruits of misspending our prime youth at the schools and universities as we do, either in learning mere words or such things chiefly as were better unlearnt.


John Milton

From “Of Education.” Milton was raised to assume a place in the Anglican Church but chose instead to write in every major literary genre of the Renaissance: elegy and epic, ode and sonnet, drama and pastoral. Milton went completely blind in 1651 and, until his death in 1674, he lived with his three daughters who transcribed Paradise Lost while secretly selling off volumes from his library.