North Star for Student Life: Wise Words for the Wise from Celebrated Essayists

While we often talk about books and poems, gems such as “essays” rarely find mention in ‘to-read’ lists for the young generation. This might be because of the terse and crisp writing form of the essays or their being low on the popularity scale. Nevertheless, their sane, wise, impartial and actionable advice can’t be ignored. In fact, the lessons filtered through them can be the ‘north star’ in the life of a student by giving the right direction and insight into the process of learning and acquiring knowledge.  

"The only thing I know is that I know nothing."  Montaigne (Book II, Chapter 12) 

The above quotation is one nugget of wisdom from the essayist Montaigne which reminds us that there is always more to learn. It also encourages us to be humble and to be open to new ideas. The article endeavours to bring forth the following wisdom highlights especially for the students’ lives from the essays of Bacon, Montaigne and Baldwin:  

Be curious and have a thirst for knowledge. Francis Bacon, in his collection of essays, advice students to read widely on a variety of topics, discuss their ideas with others, and write regularly to practice their communication skills. He mentions that "Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability." Hence, no opportunity to learn about a wide range of subjects, both inside and outside of the classroom, should be forgone by the curious learner. The famous quote "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man" from his essay "Of Studies" reminds us that by reading widely and critically, we can expand our knowledge and understanding of the world. By writing clearly and precisely, we can communicate our ideas effectively. And by discussing our ideas with others, we can learn from different perspectives and refine our own thinking. Montaigne advice learners to remain humble in the process and recognize that they don't know everything. He wrote, "I am a man who has doubts about everything."

Be organized and efficient with your time.  

"If a man does not distribute his days and hours carefully,  
it will be impossible that he should in the compass of time do great things."  

Bacon (“Of Dispatch”) 

Hence, it is of the highest value for a learner to create schedules, develop good study habits, and manage time effectively. To do this, they must take good notes in class and review them regularly, and break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. He must also understand to maintain a balance between how much attention is due to which kind of task or reading. As Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and few to be chewed and digested."   

Be critical of what you read and hear. If you are often afraid to ask questions to your professors and classmates, then take Montaigne’s advice, where he mentions the importance of thinking critically about the world around you, and not accepting everything you're told at face value. He wrote, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd." The “Of Studies” essay furnishes similar advice: "Books must be read with a discerning eye, and the reader must always keep his own good sense to consult."  

Be humble and open to learning from others. Bacon said that the wise receive instruction and the fools despise it in his essay “Of Wisdom for a Man's Self.” This often stands its ground as the wisest people are those who remain teachable for their lifetime. They are willing to learn from others, even if they are younger or less experienced. Hence, it is advisable for students to form study groups with classmates to discuss the material, help each other learn, receive feedback from their professors and classmates. It is pertinent to not become content too soon, as Bacon says, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties."  

Be open to new ideas and perspectives. The most practical advice for student life from essayist Montaigne is that they must make the most of their college experience by taking classes outside of their major, joining clubs and organizations, and meeting new people from different backgrounds. He said, "I travel more curiously than diligently, and observe more than I inquire." (Book III, Chapter 6) 

Be grateful for your opportunities. Montaigne refrains students from taking stress about the future or dwelling on the past. He advices to appreciate the present moment and make the most of their time as a student. In the 13th chapter of his book III, he writes "If a man could enjoy the present moment, and forget the past and the future, he would be as happy as it is possible to be here on earth."  

Be persistent and never give up on your goals.  

“The great enterprise of man is to live alright."  Bacon (“Of Great Place”) 

Bacon suggests that he who has a firm and unwavering resolution will find that the mountains themselves will give way before him. Student life can be challenging at times, but it is important to persevere and never give up on your goals. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from them and keep moving forward.  

Be ethical and responsible. Students have a responsibility to use their knowledge and skills for good. They should be ethical in their academic work, and act as responsible citizens to make the world a better place. Bacon rightly points out in his essay “Of Riches”, "It is not the manner of wise men to seek the best for themselves, but for the whole community."  

Be true to yourself and your own interests. Montaigne advice students to not feel pressured to choose a career path just because it's popular or expected of you. Take the time to explore different options and find something that you are passionate about. He mentions in the 17th chapter of book II, "I must live my life. I cannot live someone else's life."  

To sum up, students must focus on what James Baldwin said on first acquiring ‘self-knowledge’ in the essay "Notes of a Native Son": 

"If you don't know where you've come from,  
you don't know where you're going. 
And if you don't know where you're going,  
any road will take you there." 

About the Author

Dr Suman Siwach is an author, Director (ELT) Training & Development at Youniversity Prep, Cambridge Learning Partner, Hyderabad. Suman is a Ph.D. & university Gold Medallist in English Literature. She is a Quora Top writer (2018), a certified IELTS & Soft Skills trainer with vast experience. Her book "Gazala: A Hopeful Tale from a War-Torn World" has been featured on international book recommendation websites such as bookskibo travel fiction and has won "Bharat Vibhushan" award from Editorial board of "National Book of Records".

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  • How simply yet brilliantly summed up the basics of knowledge for children who are on the threshold of making a future for themselves
  • How simply yet brilliantly summed up the basics of knowledge for children who are on the threshold of making a future for themselves
  • Thanking you, Dr.Suman siwach such magnificent article fallen from your mind . Really it ignited and stirring up our mind to discernment of existence of life ,how to live in the post most modern culture & wounded generation. you have been portrayed important of life,time, understanding, ethics, living a life as we are, significant of reading & writing skills and purdent loves institution etc.... each stanga is a golden words,how pretty well it would be precisely built up life according to these words......... Once again thankyou so much madam. Academic Dean Sri Chaitanya IIT Olympiad School Hyderabad. K. Nanduri
  • Nice article ??
  • Indeed a very very good perspective given for the students. This will help to receive and perceive with an open mind where learning would be natural not enforced... The author is really amazing to address the real purpose of reading, writing which is learning.. Very well written article.. congratulations to Dr(Mrs) Siwach for this amazing article
  • How simply yet brilliantly summed up the basics of knowledge for children who are on the threshold of making a future for themselves
  • How simply yet brilliantly summed up the basics of knowledge for children who are on the threshold of making a future for themselves