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Montaigne in Sacramento

Lovers of Montaigne's "Essays" will have been pleased to note sightings in a variety of places in recent months. First, and perhaps most surprising, Montaigne was pressed into service by California Governor Jerry Brown in his "State of the State" speech, delivered in Sacramento on January 24. Then again, on February 16, Montaigne popped up twice on the same day in the New York Times Op-Ed pages. First, Philip Lopate championed the essay as the genre of humility (while humbly not mentioning his own new book of essays, which was then hitting the stands). In the same issue, Adam Etinson quoted Montaigne to suggest that ethnocentrism is a problem, and come to the conclusion that we might solve it by humbly acknowledging that we're all in some measure ethnocentric.

To some extent this may be the influence of Sarah Bakewell's recent popularization of Montaigne, "How to Live?" Fans of Bakewell (like me) appreciate the clever ways in which her book stresses implicitly the usefulness the "Essays" for our current age of religious war and political paralysis. But the more general interest in Montaigne could be part of a larger cultural trend in which the extended essay may have begun to grab a certain number of readerly attentograms (attentogram=n. a small quantum unit of the dwindling store of available attention) away from such hegemonic cultural forms as, say, talk radio, cinematic distortions of American history, or novels with multiple unreliable narrators.

But Brown's turn to Montaigne is the most interesting. It comes in the part of his upbeat speech ("California is back!") when he admonishes the California Legislature to act like responsible adults. It's a nice idea, at least, and to put it across Brown cites the moment at the beginning of Montaigne's "Of Experience," when Montaigne takes on the legal profession and laments the proliferation of laws. "The most desirable laws are those that are the rarest, simplest, and most general; and I even think that it would be better to have none at all than to have them in such numbers as we have," cites Brown in Donald Frame's translation of Montaigne. Brown goes on to urge the Legislature not to pass too many laws that will hamstring creativity. He contrasts the Ten Commandments (good, presumably) to the California Education Code (not so good).

What is fascinating is that Brown links the rejection of excessive legislation to a renewed desire for "tapping into the persuasive power that can inspire and organize people." Thus the answer to too much law is rhetoric--the very rhetoric that Brown is using in his speech as he tries to organize and inspire the guys who make laws. In terms of policy Brown has in mind the initiative process through which he recently was able to persuade the voters to enact a modest tax increase to bolster funding for public education in California. Henceforth, Brown seems to suggest, we can use rhetoric to persuade citizens to override the Legislature's penchant for passing laws that undermine educational quality.

Yet no sooner was the ink dry on Brown's speech than Darrell Steinberg, the head of the Democratically controlled State Senate, introduced a bill to require all UC, CSU, and California Community College campuses to accept online MOOCs as legitimate courses, no matter what their provenance. Brown supports this idea, as he has in the past admonished the University Regents to get the System on board with the latest gadgets. Steinberg's presentation offered a condensed version of the past two decades: 1) pass laws that deplete the public education budget so that schools and universities can no longer function at optimum; 2) publicly admonish the schools and universities for not functioning at optimum; and 3) bring on the telemarketers to privatize what should be public.

Thus we are left with an appropriation of Montaigne by the political elite for the purposes of praising a public rhetoric of the type Montaigne so deplored--even when it was used to good purposes. In partnership with that rhetoric is Steinberg's proposal to sell student brains to a new technology that has been shown to deplete the processes of deep concentration and quiet reflection that lent Montaigne's text such density and resonance. Thus, Montaigne becomes the authority for an agenda the consequences of which will be that ever fewer students will have the discipline, learning, and concentration actually to read Montaigne.

Perhaps the bright side of this is that we may all still have enough concentration left to read the Ten Commandments. The California Education Code, we can expect, will disappear from the Canon. As Brown put it succinctly, "education comes before legislation." If only.